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Gaming the algorithm, just the way you want it

Not long ago, the algorithm was considered jargon. Now many users are gaming it to their advantage: by letting it think what they want it to think

A lot of social media users treat algorithms as a discovery tool. They click on a random ad just to be able to discover more brands in a category.
A lot of social media users treat algorithms as a discovery tool. They click on a random ad just to be able to discover more brands in a category. (Unsplash)

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In a recent video doing the rounds on Instagram Reels, a woman can be seen staring at her mobile screen while the caption reads: “My Hinge date has left his phone unattended at the table, and I’m trying to influence his targeted ads.” She leans in closer to the phone and then launches into a monologue of instructions:

Therapy. Therapy for men. How to dismantle the patriarchy. Therapists for men. Finding a therapist for me, a male. Female 0rgasms. How to do my own washing. Therapy. Therapy…

Also read: Did Reels kill food brands on Instagram?

The 15-seconder is one of many that use a trending meme format wherein a person sneakily speaks into someone’s phone to elicit the desired outcome. The idea is based on the assumption that our smartphones listen in on everything we say and accordingly show us content, mostly in the form of ads.

Not too long ago, the algorithm was considered jargon. Now, people whose jobs aren’t related to social media also crib about the algorithm affecting their online feed and reach. Besides, many non-tech folks are increasingly gaming the algorithm to their advantage, by letting it think what they want it to think.

Alisha Pereira, a content producer from Mumbai, regularly puts items in her cart or bookmarks them on the web browser and starts getting ads (largely on Instagram) from competition or the same brand, often at lesser prices. Once, she even tried speaking into her phone’s microphone about things she doesn’t want, like winter clothing [she lives in Mumbai], just to see if the algorithm misinterprets it as her showing interest in that commodity and throws ads around it on her browser and social media feed. It did. A lot of social media users treat algorithms as a discovery tool. They click on a random ad just to be able to discover more brands in a category. “Otherwise, it is impossible to go through every site to research to check the available brands for shopping, or to check hotels and flights for travel,” says Pereira. Some people also log into a browser from a different country using a VPN and book airline tickets and hotels at better rates.

These are all “smart strategies” adopted by people that Gautam Mehra calls the “gamers”. “They are the deal seekers, the hackers, people who used to cut coupon codes from newspaper ads in the past, who now keep different cards or fintech service accounts to avail discounts on every online transaction they make,” he says. Mehra is the co-founder of ProfitWheel, an adtech firm that specialises in performance marketing and programmatic advertising.

The idea is based on the assumption that our smartphones listen in on everything we say and accordingly show us content, mostly in the form of ads.
The idea is based on the assumption that our smartphones listen in on everything we say and accordingly show us content, mostly in the form of ads. (Unsplash)

He explains how the system works and how the gamers can maximise it: Google tags you into specific cohorts called affinity users and in-market users. Google Ads defines the affinity audience as per its habits and interests that are based on “long-term life facts”, while ‘in-market’ segmentation is done basis sudden interest, often interpreted as “recent purchase intent”. The in-market audience is lucrative for retailers and etailers, especially the small businesses, who spend a lot of money trying to convert them, says Mehra.

“It’s cost-effective for a D2C marketer to reach you again [it’s called remarketing] with an intent to convert you into a customer. It takes about 5,000 a day to reach 1 lakh people. They may offer discounts as well if their goal is to grow aggressively.” The discount you get is not a function of the algorithm per se but that of a business strategy that is often informed by the algorithm’s segmentation. Marketplaces, like Amazon, may not offer discounts because they cannot make it a practice to “erode gross margins”, Mehra says.

Additionally, people play with their algorithms to break out of an echo chamber that’s created by these algorithms in the first place. Nirali Shah, a content strategist, operates multiple Instagram accounts for work and personal use. “For work, I have one IG account related to skincare, one related to decor, one dedicated to small business and one dedicated to text memes.” She also has a separate account for fitness content which she logs in to when in dire need of motivation. “I stumbled on this by mistake, when I made a finsta [fake Insta] to look at someone's Insta story and realised the discover page was so different than mine,” she says.

Mayank Jain, who heads marketing at a fintech firm in Bengaluru, has multiple dummy accounts to game the algorithm on LinkedIn, he says. “I’ve created multiple such accounts and followed certain technology companies from these accounts. I state that I’m looking for a job so I can get hiring ads from these companies, many of whom are our competition, and analyse these ads.” Companies often tweak their settings to exclude employees of certain companies from seeing their ads.

While gaming the algorithm may seem like a fun exercise, it gets annoying pretty quickly, says Jain. “I had subscribed to multiple car dealers online to set the algorithm in motion and get good deals from each one of them.” Ultimately, Jain was inundated with messages and calls from these service providers until one weekend when he sat down and unsubscribed from all those platforms. Yet, he keeps toying with the algorithm every chance he can. “Sometimes it gives me a great insight, other times, a funny tweet.”

Also read: Music in the age of algorithm

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