11: Algorithmic Audience

As most other people have mentioned in their blog posts, I frequently encounter algorithms in the context of social media, Google search results, and online shopping. I never really thought about algorithms and how they affect my online experience until I discussed them in a class, in the context of the 2016 presidential election and how they shaped users’ news feeds to create online echo chambers. After that class, I began to see the evidence of algorithms everywhere: ads would pop up on Facebook based on items I’d viewed recently on Pinterest, Instagram would notify me when certain people posted, but not others.

I found Galagher’s article particularly interesting because of the way it approached the question of audience. I’d always thought of algorithms as a tool that allowed websites to tailor their content to more specific audiences and individuals, but I had never thought of the algorithms themselves as an audience. But as Galagher notes, “an individual who writes product descriptions on Amazon,” for example, “may conceive of the company’s algorithm as an audience. This writer conceives of the various keywords that potential customers would input and the way that Amazon structures its search results. The algorithm is part of this writer’s audience” (26).

I find this a particularly intriguing facet of writing for digital platforms: you are writing for the technology itself as much as you are for the people who use it. Rather than just thinking about what words and sentence structures will be the most compelling for the individuals reading your work, you also have to think about how to optimize your writing for search engines, news feeds, and sharing.

Additionally, it changes the way that we think about the purpose and circulation of a piece of writing. Before algorithms and search engines, the only job of the piece of writing itself was to persuade the people who had it in front of them of whatever point it was trying to make–take this political view, buy this product, attend this event. Circulating that piece of writing was an external endeavor accomplished by posting signs, handing out pamphlets, or recommending books or articles. Now, however, how the text circulates depends on factors that are deeply embedded into the text itself–whether it uses certain key words, is a certain length, or has an audience that overlaps with another text or product.

Algorithms are something that we encounter constantly but rarely spend enough time thinking about, and I think they raise important questions about how digital platforms change the way we write. Here are some that I think are particularly important:

  1. How can authors best navigate this new digital landscape? Do writers, communicators, and marketers need computer science training? Should programmers be able to tell writers, for example, “you MUST use these five keywords in your piece”?
  2. Where are algorithms effective and useful and where can they be harmful? Is using an algorithm to convince you to buy particular pair of pants different, ethically, from using an algorithm to convince you to support a particular political candidate?

Word Count: 508

Works Cited: Gallagher, John R. “Writing for Algorithmic Audiences.” Computers and Composition, 2017, p 25-35.