Embarrassing Algorithms

Posted by on October 25, 2020 in Blog, Consumer issues, feminism, Humour, Living today, Technology | 6 comments

Harvard Business Review

Will I ever grow out of wanting to acquire bright, shiny things? When an ad appeared on my Facebook feed the other day for a delightful object that looked like a large snowflake (in a range of attractive finishes!) but was in fact a ‘multi-tool’ with eighteen different uses: allen key, bottle opener, screwdriver, etc. I was entranced.  How natty! I thought – and what a good stocking present.

In the end, the order form was just too annoying, with its countdown clock threatening imminent withdrawal of the special offer, and an ‘Add to cart’ button that bounced around insistently, so I pulled myself together and closed the page.

But it got me to reflecting how much the algorithms that dictate what we see have improved over the years. It seems ages since I received any emails offering me a penis extension – not that I miss them, of course.

Even so, it wasn’t that long ago that I faced the prospect of a mortifying experience in public, thanks to an insensitive algorithm. It was when Dame B. and I decided to respond to the call of Wiki Women in Red to redress the imbalance between male and female biographies on Wikipedia (currently only 18.5% of Wiki biographies are of women). We were banging our heads against the technology, so we were thrilled to find that there was an actual physical event (remember them?) that we could go along to for practical support.

Organised by a group of female academics, the event was taking place in a beautiful wood-panelled room in Senate House, University College London. As well as the brilliant bluestockings, there were in attendance some woke geeks from the Wikimedia Foundation, and Wiki contributor and editor – and all-round knight of the information superhighway – Andrew Davison: so a knowledgeable group whose support we really appreciated.

Andrew in particular could not have been more helpful, and when he witnessed our struggles on the nursery slopes of the Wiki templates, he offered to sit beside us as we worked through the process on my laptop. We agreed eagerly, and it was not until five minutes’ in that the bottom dropped out of my stomach as I remembered the ad that had been cropping up on my screen for the past few days: for breast enhancement – complete with high-res photo of a fine cleavage.

Oh God! Were we to be unmasked as a disgrace to the sisterhood? As unworthy and shallow in the presence of all these lofty dames with doctorates – not to mention a bitter disappointment to good guy Andrew? The humiliation was too awful to contemplate …

Thankfully, the chests failed to put in an appearance and by the end of the session our fist Wiki entry was published: a biography of poet Maria Jastrzębska.

Three years on, though, and I realised how completely the algorithms now understood my tastes when an ad for a nightshirt appeared on Facebook. It was exactly what I have been looking for these last twenty years, in the shops and online. What’s more, it was reduced. ‘They’ know I like a bargain – but what else do they know about me?


  1. Cheered me up! 😊

    • Thanks! I’m now trying to resist the lure of a non-stick griddle with a lid . . .

  2. I seem to be getting besieged by ads for outdoor heaters. They really are reading my mind..

  3. Loved this article ! It made me smile and like Stephanie it cheered me up,

    • Thanks Joyce, and congratulations on your tech success!

      Dame B

    • Thanks – I may be about to succumb to an ad for little discs to put in your fridge that promise to keep your veg fresh for longer!

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