“If you put your link in the comments, rather than in the body, of the Facebook post you’ll get more viewers. The algorithm prefers it.”
“The algorithm likes when you post regularly.”
Any of us that have been attempting to build a business or market through social media have heard these types of things. If you can just get everything in the right order at the right time the algorithm will favor you.
And if the algorithm favors you you’ll get social media gold: reach! More people will see your post. Maybe you’ll go viral!
Most of us don’t think much about it. We have businesses to run – we’ll do whatever we have to do to promote those businesses. But at what cost?
Let’s pause and think about the algorithms. Who controls who? Are we working for a hidden boss?
We Are The Product
First we must start with the premise that social media users are the product. Because all of the major social media platforms don’t charge users for basic services (I know LinkedIn charges for premium, all charge for ads) they must be making money off us.
And they do. They package our data up and sell it to willing advertisers. That is the key to making money in social media.
Advertisers love it! They know the ability to target specific people, with specific likes and personalities can drive sales. Compared to a billboard or a traditional TV ad, how efficient is it to only get in front of those that might be interested in your offer?
That’s powerful. But it creates the important reminder. Most social media platforms want us there, and using their platform, so they can sell targeted ads to us.
It’s Not About Us
Way back in 2012 when Facebook did it’s IPO people worried if they could make money off their mobile ads. That worry, of course, went away fast.
Facebook, like all major platforms, changed its focus to the almighty dollar: revenue. And Facebook’s revenue has exponentially expanded in it’s in time as a public company. They got the message – as a public company you serve investors.
Which reminds all of us. All of our social media platforms serve their investors, not their users. What drives decisions? What makes this company profitable and high revenue? Those are the key decisions.
Users, while they want us on the platform, are not the main focus. The main focus is to extract dollars and keep investors happy.
We Are All, In A Way, Forced To Play
Some have likened social media companies to utilities and wondered whether they should be regulated as such. In many ways social media is a lot like the electric company. If you want to communicate to a certain large population of people you have to get on social media. Each of the major channels is known to dominate particular segments of the market.
Meaning we all have to go through social media if we want to efficiently communicate with others. It’s almost like a highway or water system: it’s not efficient for society to have two parallel systems. The efficiency all comes from us being on the same system at the same time.
Imagine a world with two personal social media platforms that are nearly identical in terms of service offered: OneBook and TwoBook. If half of your friends were on OneBook and half of your friends were on TwoBook how would you communicate with all of them? You’d have to be on both platforms. Because of this we end up in a winner take all system where the social media platform that gets critical mass in a certain area becomes the go-to for that area. Everyone just grativates to the place where they can communicate to a critical mass of people.
So, in a way, once a social media platform controls an area of conversation and an audience it’s hard to overtake them.
We as consumers have to play by their rules or not play.
And their rules – in particular their algorithms – are set up their way.
Who Is “God” In This System?
So who controls all of this? Who runs the show and decides what these algorithms do and how they shape behavior?
It’s the top programmers at the top social media companies. By setting the policies that are best for their company they have trickle-down effects on society. And we are all along for the ride.
I can only imagine what is happening in boardrooms like Facebook. I am sure there are long discussions about how to increase user time and how to get more ads displayed to more users. How do we keep folks on Facebook longer is probably a key point of discussion.
What’s probably not discussed? What does all of this Facebook time do to family? How does this change society? Are we messing up humanity? (More on humanity in a bit).
How Did Power Get So Concentrated?
So how did tech companies, and particularly their algorithm writers, get so powerful?
Each major social media platform became the “norm” for their area of content. As such they are, what some consider to be, monopolies.
There are only a few major social media companies and for each major social media companies there are only a few leading technologists. So the power – to shape society – has been funneled down to a very small number of people.
What is the effect of only having a few people writing these algorithms that in turn shape must of society’s behavior?
We will see over time.
Will It Have Negative Impacts On Society?
In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari notes that many times in human history society has adopted a norm without thinking of the impact on our broader society.
For instance, Harari questions whether city structures are better for humanity than hunter-gatherer societies. Regardless of which is better all of humanity was forced into cities because this structure of society forced out others. It’s simply not a viable option, today, to be a hunter-gatherer even if you thought it would be better for your family.
And so goes many technological revolutions. We have to all conform. No one is watching the broader issues.
Anyone want to try navigating society today without a cell phone? Very few in the Western world do that.
Will these handful of people writing these algorithms that are shaping the behavior of millions, perhaps billions, of people get it right?
I guess we’ll see.
What’s Our Future?
So what is the future?
We don’t know. One of the things about mankind is that we can often wonder about the future but we often don’t know until we know.
We do know that social media has had profound impacts on society. Something no one even thought would happen just twenty years ago.
We do know that the algorithms within social media, and what we as users think they want, shapes our behavior.
Will we be more and more controlled by these silent forces? Will there be a conversation in society and a change to regulation? Will something come along and trump social media as a leading influence on society?
We don’t know but I think it’s time we think about it.
The future of our lives – and our businesses – hangs in the balance.
What do you think we should be doing? What do you think the future is? I would love to see your comments.
By: The Our Shawn McBride, a speaker, trainer and consultant on The Future of Business, the host of The Future Done Right(TM) Show and long-time business attorney. If you want regular content on the future of business subscribe to get new blog posts from us here.
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