Introduction to Algorithms
Preview the lesson below, then register for free to access the entire lesson or assign it to students.​
Average Duration
30-60 min.
Difficulty Level
Lesson Host
Nicco Mele
of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and the Harvard Kennedy School

Interact with a mock social media site and search engine to understand the information that algorithms gather about you to personalize what you see online.

News literacy topics

Algorithms and personalization

Learning objectives

  • I can explain how algorithms use data to personalize information for individuals.
  • I can describe the advantages and disadvantages of this technology.

Essential questions

  • Why is the information found through search engines and on social media platforms different for different people?
  • What are some of the ways that algorithms personalize information for us online?
  • Why do search engines and social media platforms use algorithms?
  • How do major “ad-tech” companies use algorithms to make more money?


“Just as technology has made it easier to create a ton of stuff, it’s also created ways for us to sift through all of this information and find what you’re looking for. But that solution comes with a hidden cost. By tracking your behavior online, sites like Google, Facebook, Netflix and YouTube can learn about you and try and bring stuff specifically for you. That kind of guesswork is called ‘personalization’. Personalization algorithms are complicated math equations that use data collected about your online activity to shape your experience of the information you’re exposed to on the Internet. These algorithms look at your gender, age, location, online activity, such as what you tend to click on, how long you stay on the Web pages you visit and the kinds of things you share on social networks. These search engine algorithms also analyze your online shopping habits, the emails you write and the friends you connect with online. In the process, they create a digital fingerprint unique to you.”