At this moment, African Americans and allies across the country and even across the globe are raising their voices in protest of the treatment of people of color by police.
A few weeks back I covered a number of different ways that you can help support the Black Lives Matter movement right now (f you would like to check out that video in full you can do so here). One thing I touched on but did not have much time for was to make a conscientious effort to diversify your feeds.
Race and The Algorithm
From YouTube to Facebook, Instagram to Twitter, Snapchat to whatever other social media feed is streaming across your cell phone. Social media platforms use demographic information along with your search and reaction history to dictate what content you see, what future content you are recommended, and even to prioritize the content you are looking at right now. They use a series of complex algorithms to make these decisions based on a number of different factors. Everyone and their mothers swear they know the secret to crack the YouTube algorithm, but the real systems are more tightly guarded than the key to the Matrix.
However, one of the known demographic factors that is used to indicate content choice is race or ethnic/national origin.
YouTube knows that if you click on Black beauty tubers that it should, by consequence, recommend other black beauty tubers. And on the surface this makes sense. If you are searching through makeup tutorials you are most likely going to be looking at content creators with a similar skin tone to yours, which makes sense when looking for foundation matches.
It does not make sense, however, when you are looking for tech reviews, or haul videos, or decluttering ASMR.
And yet those same videos are also predicted and recommended using the same algorithm. Which means that if you are continuously clicking on white and European content creators, you will be consistently recommended white and European content creators.
I can already tell that there will be those people who resent this idea outright. The idea of searching for content creators based on race or background or religion as though that somehow will bring harm to the other creators out there who do not fall into this category.
And, to be honest, I was one of them.
I resented the idea of searching for film makers of color or looking specifically for authors of a certain descent because I had the notion that, if there work was good enough, I would have seen it already.
Ah, privilege at it’s finest.
In a perfect world, my previous assessment would be absolutely correct, but as many of us know, even if it took me a while to realize, we do not live in a perfect world. There are inherent systematic trends that work to the advantage of some groups and the disadvantage of others.
When you focus on supporting one group over another, it is or should be, in direct response to systemic or global trends that actively hurt the suggested group. For example, left-handed versus right-handed.
Let’s say every year your school does a big fundraiser for school supplies, but this year they also want to do another fundraiser for school supplies for left-handed students. Some parents and faculty will undoubtedly be upset because they feel this new fundraiser may divert attention away from their event. But their event does not bring in hardly any supplies for left-handed students, things like desks, scissors, pencil sharpeners. These are things which yes, these students could do without or struggle to use their right-handed equipment, but they make life just a little bit harder for these students than they need to be.
The system, in this case the school district fundraisers and purchasing, helps these two groups of students unequally. And even if the left handed students are a smaller group, they are still deserving of the same level of treatment.
Whenever the system is set up at the disadvantage of a particular group, it is up to everyone to help remove those barriers in the first place and, if that isn’t possible, work to help those who need it the most.
Why Diversify Your Feed?
The best way to understand how the algorithm works at limiting your exposure to new channels using race and national identity is to start watching new groups.
Say for example – British content creators. You don’t need to subscribe or hit the like button, just watch 2-3 videos all the way through and your recommended videos will immediately change to include more British accents. The more videos you watch the more your recommendations will change. This does not mean that the content you are now being recommended is any less than or inferior to the content that you were recommended before. It just means that you have informed the YouTube algorithm that you are open to and interested in a new type of content or a similar subject presented by a new demographic.
This same information is fed into the algorithm when it comes to race. When you first open up YouTube or any social media stream for the first time without putting in any preferences or recommendations, you will see a whole slew of different types of content. From musicians and artists to car and tech reviews, food and lifestyle content, comedians and documentaries.
Without your input, these platforms are a blank canvas. But as all of us have a history when it comes to one social media platform or another, and as these platforms speak with each other on increasingly deeper levels, it becomes harder to overcome inherent bias and systemic disadvantages.
How to Diversify Your Feeds
Take a look at the subjects that your social media platform already believes you to be interested in. If we are sticking with the YouTube example, this is a running bar along the top of your YouTube home page.
Mine, for example, reads; cooking, lo-fi music, beauty, ambient music, taste, new age music (okay, so I have a type) and reading. These are the things that, based on my views likes and watching habits, YouTube has decided that I am most interested in.
Within each category, or even just overall, take a look at the types of recommendations you are getting. If you are into cooking, for example, but your feed is predominantly white, take a look at BIPOC, Latinx or asian cooking channels or content. If you are into tech reviews but, again, every face is a little pale, do the same thing (but also make sure to check out Marques Brownlee, he’s awesome). Take a look as some of the videos you see and, if you like them, give them a thumbs up.
This new data will have an immediate impact on what kind of content you are recommended and will, by default, open your recommendations up to new possibilities. The same process works for Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms to some degree.
Supporting creators of color isn’t just about reducing inherent roadblocks to success and systemic bias for creators, it’s also about opening yourself up to more diverse and incredible content.
It’s a big world out there, but you’ll only ever see so much of it if you are looking through a shuttered window.
For more on this, you can take a look at some helpful tips I’ve put together for on YouTube HERE and HERE. You can also show your support by shopping at BIPOC owned businesses or services. There are additional resources linked below the videos and, as always-
You can also check out Eve Daniels, author of The Nerdy Nanny books, on YouTube where she gives writing and academic advice as well as updating you on all of her latest and upcoming projects.