Harry Potter's Secret Is Not Out, And Other Algorithm Problems

I confess: I have lowbrow taste.

I’m in the midst of “A Song of Ice and Fire.” I’ve read every Twilight. I’ve read every Jack Reacher. And, of course, I’ve read every Harry Potter.

And so, when I noticed that many of my Facebook friends had read an article titled, “”Harry Potter’s Secret Is Out After PR Slip Gives the Game Away,”” my curiosity got the better of me: I clicked.

What I got was something you’ve probably seen by now: the permissions dialogue from The Independent, “A new social reading experience.” This app shares articles I read with the public. Do I want to add it to my Facebook?

As it happens, I didn’t feel like adding that particular app. To be honest, I’m not entirely proud of my lowbrow proclivities, and I didn’t want my gossip-mag-style obsession with wizards and muggles blasted out to my newsfeed. So, instead, I Googled the title of the article.



This turned out to have been a good idea, because the story was not, in fact, a story at all. It had been a story, when it broke, back in June: a staffer had inadvertently sent out a confidential PR strategy doc to media the day before the launch of Pottermore. Oh, the scandal! I’m pretty sure the whole thing had blown over by the time the article was even written, and from memory, both Rowling and Harry’s reputations are still reasonably intact.

So why, now, is this article consistently showing up on people’s social readers? It’s an algorithm problem -- or rather, a broadcast filter problem. Even though we know that the fact that we’ve read an article doesn’t mean we endorse it, the social reader broadcasts with no distinction between the two. And human nature being what it is, we react to “Daniel Radcliffe has read an article” just as if Daniel had actually liked the article.

This is great news for the app, which is once again demonstrating the power of social proof. It is also great news for The Independent, and anyone else whose articles have headlines intriguing enough to invite clicks. But we the readers are the losers here, because by the time the first person has realized that this is actually a ridonkulously out-of-date story, it’s already in their newsfeed -- and the second person has clicked.

The automatic nature of the social reader has given rise to the Unvalidatius Headlineus Virus, one that spreads faster than Meningoencephalitis Virus One from that “Contagion” flick. “Someone else read it” plus “compelling title” equals “virtually guaranteed click” equals “new group of people exposed to the virus.”

Here’s where those people from TED start to sound less like paranoid crazies and more like insightful visionaries. Here’s where Eli Pariser’s “filter bubbles” become even more dangerous, because there’s no brake switch. Here’s where Kevin Slavin’s observations of how algorithms shape our world shift from intriguing to essential.

Tomorrow, I’ll be hosting my annual Thanksgiving party. (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a week late, but in New Zealand Thanksgiving is when I say it is.) The party’s organization is facilitated through for guest communications and managing RSVPs, Google for sourcing the bounce house, online banking for paying for the bounce house -- in short, it is facilitated through the use of algorithms. And, yes, I am thankful for them. Without algorithms, I wouldn’t have email, Facebook, Skype, or a career. The question is not whether or not we should rely on algorithms. The question, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, is which is to be master: us… or them.

1 comment about "Harry Potter's Secret Is Not Out, And Other Algorithm Problems".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 2, 2011 at 11:37 a.m.

    Sorry, that's Pogo.

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