In high school, I had a band director who would rarely say anything to his students which wasn’t related to music, marching or directing us. When he did talk to us, typically before a big competition, all two-hundred students in our marching band would be silent and attentive. He retired my sophomore year and was replaced by another band director who loved giving us pep talks all the time, so much so that most people constantly tuned him out and ignored what he had to say.
The filmmaker Kevin Smith plays a reoccurring character, named Silent Bob, in many of his movies. Silent Bob rarely ever talks. When he does, his lines are intended to be profound or at least memorable, even if they’re very simple. I rarely post on social media, unless it’s to direct friends to content on my website, which I host independently. In normal social interactions, when a person doesn’t talk much, more weight is often given to their words when they do. However, social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, use custom algorithms for sorting posts. Although these systems are closely guarded secrets, they seem to reward people who interact with their platforms more. People like myself, who rarely post content, often get less exposure than those who frequently interact with other users.
Facebook first introduced their news feed in 2006. Prior to that, Facebook was similar to MySpace, where every user could post content, but you’d have to manually go to other users profiles to see that content. In 2007, they introduced the “Like” button, and in 2009, posts changed from being chronologically sorted to being ranked by popularity. Since then, Facebook’s default view has always been a ranked list of posts. The ranking algorithms themselves evolved over the next decade1.
Twitter kept a reverse chronological timeline until 2016, when it switched to an algorithmic timeline as well. It too, now shows more tweets from those who interact frequently with the service or whose tweets are popular or trending2.
How do the algorithms work?
In the beginning of 2018, Facebook announced changes to the way their news feed algorithm worked. They claimed the changes were to encourage more meaningful interactions, such as comments and conversations, over scrolling and liking. Facebook claimed they were interested in people spending more meaningful time on their site, even if it was less overall time3.
These changes were most likely in response to Facebook’s data leaks. Although Facebook tried to alleviate concerns with press releases about algorithm changes, they offered no real insight or transparency into what those changes really involved. Twitter’s algorithms are equally mysterious. It could be argued that secret algorithms are necessary for spam prevention or to prevent certain interest groups from gaming the system. However, even if that were so, none of the big social networks offer any degree of control on how posts are ranked.
It’s insidious that none of the algorithms used by social networks are configurable or transparent. When news sites inform their readers of how large platforms rank posts, it’s usually guess work and assumptions based on press releases or observation, and rarely based on scientific analysis or leaked insider information. The new online economy is based around grabbing our attention, and the websites we use the most seem to be rewarding us for constant participation.
Changing the way we interact
The mobile phone market has changed the way we interact with software. People who played video games when I was younger expected to get a complete game when purchasing a disc or cartridge from the store. Mobile free-to-play games attempt to train people to purchase items throughout the game in order to advance. In the past, people would pay large one-off sums of money (often $200 ~ $400) in order to buy professional-grade software like Photoshop. Today, companies like Adobe are pushing a subscription only model, where customers must may a monthly or yearly subscription for software. This recently left Venezuelan customers without any access to Adobe Creative Cloud products, or the ability to open their existing documents, after a US executive order forced Adobe to stop sales in their country4.
Rather than software companies meeting the needs of people, and charging an appropriate price, today software companies are changing the way customers purchase licenses to maximize long-term profits. With social networking, the real customers are the advertisers and the rest of us who post content are the
product cattle. Facebook and Twitter are actually changing the way we interact with and perceive one another.
“[Working at] Facebook felt a little bit like a shouting match; like a popularity content. Primarily because of the way that they use Workplace, which is Facebook for work. Everybody is always posting useless status updates about themselves. What they’re doing, what they’re up to, what their team’s done, what their accomplishments have been. None of it is really actionable. They’re just random status updates, and there’s a lot of noise to filter through. So imagine receiving multiple notifications every day where people are just telling you what they’ve accomplished. How great they are. Me. Me. Me. … And in order for you to keep up, you also have to start shouting about how great you are too … If you’re into popularity contests like that; if you thrive in that type of environment then you will probably do pretty well there.” -Patrick Shyu, TechLead5
Within our real life social circles, many of us tend not to reward those who constantly prattle on or seek to continually be the center of attention. It will be interesting to see if such behaviors become more prevalent, as on-line social media bleeds out into our everyday lives, or if people will turn their back on the tactics of social media, in the same ways we ignore those who simply never shut the hell up.
Cumplimiento de Adobe con la orden ejecutiva de EE. UU. Venezuela. Adobe. Retrieved on 1 December 2019. ↩