"Knock it off, algorithms!"

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An experience that's become all too common — as documented in Zits for 11/25 through 11/28:


  1. Thaomas said,

    November 29, 2019 @ 8:11 pm

    I posed something on Facebook about someone's "cheesy" argument and got a Velveeta ad!in my email page!

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 4:21 am

    I run an adblocker, so don't see this sort of thing in my browser, but I'm routinely puzzled about what Facebook thinks I'm interested in. Most recently it's decided I'm interested in vegetarianism and vegan food – not merely am I not, I can't guess what I might have done to give the impression.

  3. AntC said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 5:48 am

    @Andreas, in your short post, "vegetarianism" and "vegan" stand out as algorithmically unlikely words, and there's a "I'm interested in" just before, therefore expect more targeted ads (if Facebook is reading LLog). (And I've used both words, so myl will have to clear a double dose of spam.)

    These algorithms seem to be unaware of the distinction between mention vs use; or that 'not' or negative-disposition terms attach to something. Saying "Alexa: enough with the adverts for X" will be taken as reinforcing the targeting for X.

  4. Josh said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 6:44 am

    Do you think the algorithm reads language log comments?

    Hey Facebook, show me ads about easy language learning services! English, Spanish, Tagalog, Russian, French, and German.

  5. Rube said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 8:35 am

    I will say that Facebook’s algorithms seem to be improving. A couple of years ago, I, a Canadian, received daily invitations to join both radically pro and radically anti Trump groups. That’s not happening anymore.

  6. jin defang said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

    Not only can I not figure out why I keep getting ads to buy t-shirts with 3-D pictures of dogs, their tongues having out, on them, I don't know how to get rid of them. Have repeatedly clicked on the "report this ad" option. I get a reply "we'll try not to show that ad again." Seconds later, it reappears. I even wrote google to explain that I loathe dogs and seldom wear t-shirts. No effect.
    I also tried clicking on some of the unobjectionable ads—for clothing, jewelry, furniture, and so on. I do get quite a few of those. But the blankety-blank dog shirts continue as well.

  7. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 12:21 pm

    @AntC: It would seem more in character if when I do mention vegetarianism FB stops showing me such ads.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 3:03 pm

    AntC: These algorithms seem to be unaware of the distinction between mention vs use; or that 'not' or negative-disposition terms attach to something. Saying "Alexa: enough with the adverts for X" will be taken as reinforcing the targeting for X.

    Either that, or trying to stop the ads means you feel your resistance breaking down, and showing you a few hundred more will make the sale. (Note that the agent of "trying" is you and the agent of "showing" is Alexa or whatever.)

  9. Vance Koven said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 4:47 pm

    I guess Facebook has never heard of Oliver Cromwell, either. Either that or their advertisers have nothing they can sell that would correspond with any expression implicating the Lord Protector.

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 12:35 am

    I do some shopping online, and inevitably for weeks or months afterward, I am deluged with ads for items I have already purchased (a major algorithmic fail) or items I looked at and decided not to buy. I also find that words I look up in online dictionaries often lead to weird ad results.

    I’m surprised the Zits crew aren’t grappling with ads for cures for toenail fungus, which seem to be a staple of newspaper off-site teasers.

  11. Trogluddite said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 11:59 am

    When I was first diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I thought it might be beneficial to join an online support group, so I "lurked" briefly on a few sites looking for one I might feel comfortable joining. The ad algorithms immediately deduced that I must require dating services or a wife from a distant country! I had not sought out topics pertaining to romance or marital status (not disclosed online except where mandatory for access to state services), nor had I changed my online behaviour in any other way. I can only conclude that the algorithms are well versed in stereotypes about my condition (ads promising miraculous "cures" and various flavours of "mindfulness" became rather common, too.)

    Thankfully, I have a pretty thick skin and a dark sense of humour, so could see the amusing side (though the joke wore off rather quickly!). There are others for whom being tarred with the "socially inept male nerd" stereotype might be rather more of a sore point.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:33 pm

    I don't know, I tend to ignore those kinds of ads (and in fact, all ads). Advertised 'dating' and 'foreign women' sites are most likely scams, and I would that someone with Asperger's would be less likely to fall for one. Don't attribute more intelligence than necessary to the algorithm – they don't have any, as is demonstrated by this very topic.

    Vance Koven:
    Although 'warts and all' does come from a story about Oliver Cromwell, I don't think that connection very salient today. It would be more surprising if these algorithms _did_ make that connection.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  13. Trogluddite said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    @Andrew Usher
    Not "intelligence", no, I certainly wouldn't go that far. Such subjects are common enough on such support groups that it's easy to see how the algorithms might make such a correlation simply by trawling for key words and phases.

  14. Jake said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 2:25 pm

    This is why you should use adblockers whenever possible.

  15. Christian Weisgerber said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 3:32 pm

    I do some shopping online, and inevitably for weeks or months afterward, I am deluged with ads for items I have already purchased

    This is not limited to the online world. When you buy a car, for the next few years the dealer will keep sending you brochures for new models etc., because obviously once you've bought one car you will immediately buy another one. However, a decade later, by the time you actually contemplate getting a new car, this advertising will have dried up.

    (With a standard adblocker, I see barely any ads online at all.)

  16. Bathrobe said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 7:25 pm

    Wow, I'm looking forward to the fun of planting all kinds of weird keywords in my Facebook posts!

  17. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 12:46 am

    @Christian Weisgerber:

    In another offline example, after I bought my first appartment (after renting for years), I got a brief flurry of offers to refinance my loans – inevitably at higher rates than I was already paying.

  18. Rose Eneri said,

    December 2, 2019 @ 10:28 am

    @jin defang
    Maybe you keep getting ads for dog items because of the "fang" in your name.

    Dogs are the best! Get to know one.

  19. Robert said,

    December 4, 2019 @ 9:39 pm

    I thought this post might be about the wilful misuse of the term "algorithm" in this context. Heuristics are not algorithms.

    [(myl) Sez who? Some not all algorithms are heuristics, but some are — Google Scholar claims 171,000 hits for the phrase "heuristic algorithms".]

  20. Johannes Choo said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 2:37 pm


    Interestingly, the reverse situation is had as well: all heuristics are algorithms, in the prior, more fundamental sense of the word. Heuristics are (educated guess) rules that are followed blindly to lead to a result, so that by definition they are algorithms.

    As is clear to a contemporary reader, the comic uses the word "algorithm" to refer to a mysterious and powerful computer program, whereas it is not the program's identity as a mysterious and powerful computer program that is causing the problems, but its identity as a not-sufficiently-good heuristic.

    But heuristics are again algorithms in that prior, more basic sense, such that if not for the current additional meaning of the word "algorithm", the whole comic would still be comprehensible and with "algorithm" referring to the more basic signification.

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