Research: Understanding how young people experience algorithms

20 května, 2021 • English language content • by

Joëlle Swart from the Centre for Media and Journalism Studies, University of Groningen analyzed how young people experience the algorithms, which are extensively shaping their understanding of the world as social media is becoming the dominant source of the news for them. In the article, it is explored “how young people make sense of, feel about, and engage with algorithmic news curation on social media and when such everyday experiences contribute to their algorithmic literacy”.

Social media and algorithms

Social media became a place where we not only communicate, but also meet, work, and to some extent “live”, especially in the time of Covid-19 when we found new different ways to use the online space. Moreover, social media, mostly Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, became a source of news for people, with the youngest being the most common to get the news only from social media. Algorithms play a key role when it comes to the question of which news will be presented to the user (e.g. Beer, 2017, Diakopoulus, 2015.).

Swart decided to examine how those under 25, who are exposed to social media the most, perceive and experience the algorithms, and to what extent for them it develops what is called “algorithmic literacy”.

To completely understand how algorithms function is practically impossible since neither their developers can always explain it. This is why Swart argues she takes “the notion of experience as a point of departure” in the article.

She explores “the interactions between algorithms and news users” through the qualitative method of in-depth interviews conducted between 22 young Dutch people from 16 to 26 years old. She combines it with the walk-through method and think-aloud protocols.

The goal was not to explain what young people are supposed to know, but to understand “the perceived knowledge and tactics that users build through their everyday usage of social media”.

Experiencing and understanding the algorithms

The research showed how these young people do not find the news on purpose, but news finds them. This again shows the importance of the algorithms. The author of the article found how Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp were the most important source of news for her interviewees.

When it comes to the cognitive dimension to the algorithmic experience, Swart found how her participants’ awareness of algorithms varied: some of them have never heard about the word “algorithm”, while some were able to describe how they function very well.

She also found how sense-making processes of algorithms revolve around 1) the comparison of algorithms between different platforms, 2) algorithms within the app, and 3) the type of content users see. She has found it surprising that “high algorithmic awareness in one context does not necessarily make users more conscious about potential algorithmic curation in other situations”.

Emotions and algorithms

Another studied dimension, the affective one, showed how interviewees feel about algorithms. While one group of participants didn’t have strong feelings about them as they found them rational, the second group “perceived algorithms as useful guides” and “emphasized the benefits of recommender systems, such as saving time and discovering news they might not have uncovered themselves”.

The last identified group showed strong negative feelings towards the algorithms. In the end, the interviews showed how young people’s emotions affect what they think about algorithms as they were suggesting ways to improve the users‘ experience with them.

Rather ignore than „unlike“

The last studied dimension was the behavioral one. Swart found three things. Firstly, her interviewees didn’t believe they can control the algorithms too much. Secondly, although they may know that algorithms function on their “like”, “follow”, and “unfollow” button, the young people didn’t, for example, unfollow accounts they didn’t find interesting on their news feed. Thirdly, she found how it was much easier for young people to ignore or scroll through the content they don’t want on their feed than to try to “change” the algorithm.

The author concluded that “young people overall were reasonably content with how recommender algorithms classified them”.

In the conclusion, “users’ sense-making strategies of algorithms are context-specific, triggered by expectancy violations and explicit personalization cues”. The author emphasizes that young people don’t automatically verbalize how they feel about algorithms nor that “having knowledge about algorithms necessarily stimulate users to intervene in algorithmic decisions”.

This research, very rich with the findings, and with interesting methodology, helps us understand the way young people experience algorithms, which are in a significant way controlling and leading their experiences online.


This article is a summary of research conducted by Joëlle Swart from the Centre for Media and Journalism Studies, University of Groningen. The original scientific article “Experiencing Algorithms: How Young People Understand, Feel About, and Engage With Algorithmic News Selection on Social Media” was published in April 2021 in Social Media + Society 7(2):

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