Got them ol’ algorithm blues

Published in The Sault Star April 27, 2020

There’s a handsome young guy on a TV ad who stretches his well-muscled frame, jogs up some stairs, then takes a disturbing amount of pride in his ability to spin a basketball on one finger.

Meanwhile, in a related ad, a generously endowed young woman bops vigorously across a room while extolling the virtues of having a great vibe and finding her rhythm.

These are commercials for the online dating site eHarmony. 

eHarmony tells us these attractive young people aren’t looking for a) a pickup game or b) someone to dance with but c) Real Love on eHarmony.

This begs the question: Why haven’t they found each other on eHarmony?

They seem perfect for each other. And if it turns out they aren’t perfect for each other, they’d be too self-absorbed to notice.

Surely if eHarmony works as it should, these two would now be buying matching floor-to-ceiling mirrors, not still looking for Real Love.

Or has the eHunk been led down the garden path by the attractive young plant-fancier featured in yet another of eHarmony’s ads?

I’m inclined to blame the failure of this obviously compatible duo to find each other (and the Real Love that would inevitably follow) on eHarmony’s reliance on its algorithm.

A few minutes of very haphazard research on the internet informs me that the dating site has put almost as much work into its algorithm as their young man has put into his glutes and quads.

As you might expect, this algorithm incorporates information people provide by answering a humongous questionnaire (Sample question: Which is more important: a great vibe or finding a rhythm). 

But it also tracks who they like or dislike, who they message, how they interact with members and lots of other stuff deduced from online activity.

As algorithms go, eHarmony’s should be top-notch. 

And probably it would be, if algorithms accomplished much more than annoying the crap out of people who use social media.

But forgive me. I’ve assumed you know about algorithms. Maybe you’re wondering what a musical group you think you recall hearing at Rotaryfest has to do with eHarmony.

So here’s the scoop: Algorithms are essentially sets of rules or guidelines to be followed by a computer to solve the problem of how to extract more money from human beings (or Bitcoin from Pierre Poilievre).

They were invented by Irish-American con artist Allan G. O’Rhythm, who was later convicted of crossing state lines to convince businesses that he could sell them a way to read the minds of consumers.

OK, I made that up. But if you believe in algorithms you might have fallen for it.

Algorithms show up in your online lives as advertisements, suggestions and puzzling intrusions. They decide what you find on social media when you’re really looking for something else.

When it comes to targeting ads, they’re about as accurate as a cluster bomb. 

You’re over 25 and you breathe so of course you’re interested in having collagen implanted in your lips.

You “liked” a friend’s post about her tulips so you must want to see ads for fertilizer, garden implements and seed for a week or two.

Leafs’ fan? Aha, hockey, so you’ll love this Brendan Gallagher bobblehead.

About the only thing algorithms really excel at is showing you an endless selection of products after you’ve purchased the item you want.

For example, more than a month ago I did some online research and then bought a Fitbit smartwatch. (Oddly, mine doesn’t calculate how many calories I would burn by spinning a basketball on my finger.)

Since then I’ve seen probably thousands of ads for various brands of watches. I’m waiting for one to pop up during what Fitbit tells me is REM sleep.

Does the algorithm think that having bought one, naturally I will want a whole drawerful of watches? Clearly it has no access to my credit card statements.

Or perhaps the algorithm is like one of those irritating “friends” who delights in telling you he got a much better deal on the same thing you just purchased.

Algorithms can be more than annoying to a columnist. Often I research or read into subjects that I might find odious and detestable. Right on cue I’m subjected to a parade of ads and posts tailored to an appalling “me” that I’d probably wouldn’t want to know.

I can only imagine what’s going to interrupt my scrolling for the next few weeks, now that I’ve expressed an interest in eHarmony.

Probably some algorithm thinks I can run up a bunch of stairs without first booking a physical therapy appointment or later going to emerg.

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