We need a way to reset our social feeds

Summer Merkle | Cartoonist

Social media algorithms are equal parts engineering marvel and monstrosity. The mystical algorithms are what determines what content you see on your feeds and when you see it. Their effectiveness at sifting through our data and delivering content with precision — sometimes to the point of eeriness — plays a huge role in why so many people are addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

So what happens when the algorithm gets a bit lost?

If you’re the type of person who can’t take your eyes off your smartphone or computer, chances are you’ve experienced this before. Either your feeds (explore and “for you” pages included) stagnate and start showing you repetitive content, or the content they are showing you is wildly off-base from what you’d enjoy. It might even make you less likely to come back to that app on a regular basis.

Let’s ignore for a minute the good that would come if everyone got a little less screen time. It’s just not realistic to expect everyone to immediately scale back their social media usage, especially living in, well, now.

Currently, there isn’t an easy way to rectify this problem. Sure, you could go through and manually flag every suggested post you don’t like, but that’s so much effort and doesn’t really tell the magical algorithm what you want to see, just what you don’t. And if you’re already engaging with the content you do like, more of that won’t help much either.

Instead, social media platforms need a way to let users start fresh without creating a brand-new account. Keep your followers and the accounts you follow, keep your old posts, but wipe clean all the data points that keep feeding you the same irrelevant content, then let the algorithm do what it does best from there.

Right now, the giants of social media collect a mind-blowing amount of data on users. Facebook, for example, doesn’t just keep track of basic info like interactions, age and location. It also tracks stats such as users’ political alignment and activity across the wider internet.

Users fork over so much personal information to social media companies on a daily basis, yet they have very little control over how that data is used to feed content back to them. A reset switch would help rectify this problem.

An algorithm reset switch would also offer a valuable lifeline to people who have been sucked into the vortex of radical content online. A well-documented effect of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is how it washes users dabbling with alt-right content down a pipeline to full radicalization. A simple method to scrub one’s recommendations of hyper-partisan content or conspiracy theory videos could have very real positive consequences.

This could be a mutually beneficial arrangement for both user and platform alike. Surely the very thought of nullifying years of data would make some Silicon Valley tech dudes cringe at first, but if users are already bored and at risk of leaving (or worse), isn’t it in the company’s best interest to bring them back?