Beyond Engagement: Aligning Algorithmic Recommendations With Prosocial Goals

Much of the media we see online — whether from social media, news aggregators, or trending topics — is algorithmically selected and personalized. Content moderation addresses what should not appear on these platforms, such as misinformation and hate speech. But what should we see, out of the thousands or millions of items available? Content selection algorithms are at the core of our modern media infrastructure, so it is essential that we make principled choices about their goals.

The algorithms making these selections are known as “recommender systems.” On the Internet, they have a profound influence over what we read and watch, the companies and products we encounter, and even the job listings we see. These algorithms are also implicated in problems like addiction, depression, and polarization. In September 2020, Partnership on AI (PAI) brought together a diverse group of 40 interdisciplinary researchers, platform product managers, policy experts, journalists, and civil society representatives to discuss the present and future of recommender systems. This unique workshop on recommender-driven media covered three topics:

  • How recommenders choose content today.
  • What should be the goal of recommenders, if not audience engagement?
  • Emerging technical methods for making recommenders support such goals.

Several promising directions for future recommender development emerged from the workshop’s presentations and subsequent discussions. These included: more understandable user controls, the development of survey-based measures to refine content selection, paying users for better data, recommending feeds not items, and creating a marketplace of feeds. The workshop also resulted in the first-ever bibliography of research articles on recommender alignment, as contributed by workshop participants.

How recommenders choose content

Recommender systems first emerged in the mid-1990s to help users filter the increasing deluge of posts on Usenet, then the main discussion forum for the fledgling Internet. One of the very first systems, GroupLens, asked users for “single keystroke ratings” and tried to predict which items each user would rate highly, based on the ratings of similar users. Netflix’s early recommender systems similarly operated on user-contributed star ratings. But it proved difficult to get users to rate each post they read or movie they watched, so recommender designers began turning to signals like whether a user clicked a headline or bought a product. By the mid-2000s, systems like Google News relied on a user’s click history to select personalized information.

Today’s recommender systems use many different kinds of user behavior to determine what to show each user, from clicks to comments to watch time. These are usually combined in a scoring formula which weights each type of interaction according to how strong a signal of value it’s thought to be. The result is a measure of “engagement,” and the algorithmic core of most recommender systems is a machine learning model that tries to predict which items will get the most engagement.

Engagement is closely aligned to both product and business goals, because a system which produces no engagement is a system which no one uses. This is true regardless of the type of content on the platform (e.g. news, movies, social media posts) and regardless of business model (e.g. ads, subscriptions, philanthropy). The problem is that not everything that is engaging is good for us — an issue that has been recognized since the days of sensationalized yellow journalism. The potential harmful effects of optimizing for engagement, from the promotion of conspiracy theories to increased political polarization to addictive behavior, have been widely discussed, and the question of whether and how different platforms are contributing to these problems is complex.

Even so, engagement dominates practical recommendations, including at public-interest news organizations like the BBC. Sometimes high engagement means the system has shown the user something important or sparked a meaningful debate, but sensational or extreme content can also be engaging. Recommender systems need more nuanced goals, and better information about what users need and want.

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