Algorithms Don’t Have Feelings

Algorithms Don't Have Feelings

Last week a number of blog posts surfaced in response to the growing occurrence of Flickr pro account deletions, suddenly and without prior warning to end users. Several heated discussion threads suggest Flickr community moderators have been erasing user accounts (apparently unscrupulously for some time now) due to members supposedly—and quite often unknowingly—violating some form of the Flickr community guidelines. Worse, others speculate the Flickr database has become rife with technical bugs as it grapples with capacity issues as it is reported Flickr recently surpassed it’s 5-billionth image upload, leading us to believe these seemingly arbitrary actions are not deliberate, but rather the work of malfunctioning computer algorithms.

While it’s anyone’s guess what exactly is going on here, the story of Deepa Praveen’s pro account deletion, aside from the speculative circumstances, raises questions over the methods used by Flickr community moderators to alert members of a looming account suspension if there is a breach in certain community guidelines. For the record, Deepa Praveen lost 600 photos, 6,000 emails, 600 contacts, 20,000 favorites, 35,000 comments as her account was spontaneously wiped clean from the Flickr database with apparently no prior warning messages.
If the actions taken by Flickr in this case seem rather cursory and a bit bewildering—even if caused by technical glitches—in light of the fact that Deepa has not yet received an adequate response back from Flickr, they do nevertheless illustrate a strange, almost absurd lack of regard for the human element.

Maybe smart apps with ‘feelings’ will be the major paradigm shift driving Web 5.0 platforms 10 to 15 years from nowIn all seriousness, Yahoo executives and Flickr’s core team have apparently neglected to reconcile the fact that people do have feelings. The algorithms and preprogrammed scripts governing the many Flickr APIs and day-to-day site functions do not consider the feelings of end users. Well, at least not yet. Maybe smart apps with ‘feelings’ will be the major paradigm shift driving Web 5.0 platforms 10 to 15 years from now when people finally become fed up with being treated like insignificant database entries.

In fact, at the moment, one could say this story illustrates yet another one of the shortcomings plaguing modern UXD in terms of our inability to realize truly intelligent user experiences. From account creation, to ongoing user correspondence and account management, to eventual account deletion, these so-called ‘spaces in-between’ seem in many instances to be crudely thought out and executed. However, increasingly these phases of user interaction exist as critical access points with real people. They are the connective tissue of most Web sites and applications. Most significantly though, these points are opportunities to establish and maintain audience engagement, forming the underpinnings of an organization’s digital identity.

Yahoo/Flickr are dropping the ball in this regard.

If on the other hand Deepa’s Flickr woes are self inflicted wounds (unintentionally by the sounds of it) and perhaps somewhat isolated, then maybe the so-called rules of engagement governing Flickr participation and professional membership status are not clear or articulated well enough to end users. Although, as Flickr pro member Ken MacGray is quick to point out, every user agrees to Flickr’s terms of service when they sign up [whether they like it or not].

Still, how many of us actually read the EULA for the numerous applications we install or social networks we join on a regular basis. Moreover, how many of us expect the finer points of these end user agreements to be levied against us at some point in the future? While Flickr’s terms of service seem fairly standard, this does not absolve the people running Flickr from indiscriminate treatment of loyal community members. If a community member has done something wrong, please tell them so in an email—a Tweet—a text message—a phone call—a letter in the mail—anything. After all, member engagement is the lifeblood by which the success or failure of social networks—photo sharing or otherwise—can be measured, so don’t squander it. Just witness the declining popularity of MySpace.

In another story (unrelated to Flickr) in late December we hear of the man who was oddly fired by a Google algorithm. While this initially sounded like a a practical joke, it nevertheless illustrates the ruthless precision of Google’s AdSense algorithms in eliminating a user’s account based on a breach of terms. Reddit along with several other news aggregation sites reported the story of Dylan Winter, a freelance journalist and videographer from England, who earned a large portion of his income through advertisements running via his YouTube Channel. Dylan produced a series of short documentary films on a variety of subjects over an 18-month period for YouTube. Several of these short films were popular enough to garner Dylan a very respectable 1% click-through rate on ads placed against the films. This translated into approximately $18, 000 based on 1.5 million hits per month with a whopping 14-million views against one of his films in particular.

Unfortunately Dylan ran into problems with his Google AdSense account when he apparently started encouraging his YouTube subscribers (apparently via the comments area) to click-through the ADs appearing on his page.

Of course those familiar with AdSense know, Google strictly prohibits members from actively soliciting clicks from visitors because, more often than not, the spike in revenue generated from such clicks do not equate to legitimate transactions (note, Google pays AdSense members anywhere from 1 to 2-cents to several dollars per click). As a result, Dylan Winters’ AdSense account was promptly shut down 2-weeks prior to Christmas.

While Dylan’s story is unfortunate, perhaps he made the mistake of relying too heavily on Google as his primary source of income. Had he devised other ways to generate income from his short film productions—other than YouTube and AdSense (both incidentally owned by Google)—it would have been much easier to mitigate the negative effects of the resulting suspension. But Dylan had all his eggs in one basket.

While there are really no solid answers here, at the very least just a cautionary tale of publishing one’s data to the growing cloud.

In the case of Deepa Praveen’s Flickr woes, perhaps the lesson is to know exactly what you’re getting into before investing significant time, energy or personal resources into a platform based in the cloud. Certainly if you run the risk of losing 600+ photos, perhaps the bigger take-away here is to ensure your data is backed-up elsewhere (and in multiple places) or suffer the dire consequences of an unstable database or worse, inconsiderate delete-key-pushing admin.

In Dylan Winter’s case, don’t expect the automated AdSense email notices to feel any remorse for deleting your income stream, if in fact terms of the signed agreement were breached. Using any proprietary tool or technology means playing by the proprietor’s rules. If you go looking for pity in an algorithm you’re not going to find it—rather, you’re only going to find the mathematical logic of zeros and ones.


2 thoughts on “Algorithms Don’t Have Feelings

  1. Deepa, thanks for popping in. I understand your frustrations. Flickr administrators at least owe you an explanation why your account was removed without prior notice.
    In my research for this post I did in fact find a couple past instances of sudden account deletions with Flickr, so there appears to be a pattern here.

    I joined Flickr only several months ago and have since reconsidered posting large numbers of my photos in light of your story. For the longest time I’ve shared photography via my own hosted site/portfolio. Obviously though, the benefits to sharing via community network are numerous so I’m wondering if any Flickr alternatives will start surfacing.

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