Editorial: (Un) Social Media
We’re constantly being told that social media is the key to running any good online presence, especially for artists an creators. As a photographer, I’m constantly reading articles about how important social media is, and how you need to grow your followers and constantly post or your online presence will wither and die. Even if you’re not a professional, social media has become so pervasive in our online lives that it’s fair to say that a large part of the internet is dependent on it.
In my experience though, there are some serious problems both with relying on social media to drive traffic and build a web presence, and also its growing influence on the internet as a whole.
If we look at the idea that social media is how you promote and drive visitors to your website or online business, one has to wonder where this notion comes from. While, there is no doubt that you can generate some traffic from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and I'm sure a few people have had success this way, the amount of traffic you will get from social media posting, is in my experience, grossly overstated, especially by people selling social media training and services.
For a start, the amount of people who see your posts will vary depending on the platform and depending on the way you post. On Facebook, and on Instagram you are at the mercy of the dreaded algorithm. On Twitter this is less the case, but it is subject to other factors, such as the time of day, hashtags and so on. On Facebook, only a fraction of your followers will see your post, unless of course you pay for it. Facebook claims that it only shows people what it thinks they’re interested in in order to stop their timelines being flooded with noise, but I doubt that it is entirely done for the sake of the user. Im sure the fact that getting users to pay so that everyone sees their own content, is one of Facebook’s primary ways to make money, has something to do with it too. Facebooks algorithm is a pain, especially if it decides your interests in a way that isn’t accurate and then gets stuck showing you things you aren’t actually that interested in and hiding content that you are. On my own Facebook account, I am constantly missing posts that I want to see, and no matter how many times I manually like content form certain people, it still won’t show it to me unless I set it to “latest results” rather than the normal mode. I don’t even see my own posts half the time.
Instagram has similar issues. It has gone from being a great and enjoyable platform to engage with, to being a total pain to use, ever since Facebook unleashed its own algorithm on it for deciding on what you get to see. Now, I hardly ever see the content from the people that I most want to follow. I almost never see posts from my wife, for example, or my friends. Instead, I’m flooded with posts from the aggregator accounts, those who go around taking other people works with hashtags. What’s even more frustrating about Instagram, is that unlike Facebook, there’s no way to turn the stupid algorithm off. Again, I sometimes don’t even see my own posts. Even people for whom I have notifications turned on, often don’t turn up in my timeline.
On my photography Facebook page I have about 10,000 followers. A modest, but still reasonable amount. However when I share posts, they regularly reach only 100–200 people, which is a tiny fraction of my overall followers. I’m sure someone will claim that I’m just not posting interesting content, but then why did so many people follow me in the first place? On twitter, I have a smaller following (3,700 approximately), but I have had blog posts and other content picked up by big accounts with very large followers. One would expect that if a large account tweets one of your blog posts or links that you would get lots of traffic from it, but that’s not the case. The number of incoming links form these usually numbers in the low 20’s even on accounts with close to a million followers (according to Twitter’s own analytics.) So if accounts with these numbers can’t drive traffic, who can?
I’m sure some people defending the benefits of social media will claim that I'm not structuring my posts properly, and go through all the things you need to do to be effective, but then that’s the other issue that I have with social media, and again, it’s down to the algorithms. The problem is that it’s become as much about finding ways to cheat the system and get around the algorithms as it is about actually posting good content. Looking at the most prolific accounts that I follow they all are clearly about the account optimisation. On Instagram this means they are either using bots or are aggregate accounts copying other people’s content.
It’s gotten to the point now where it doesn’t feel genuine any more. It feels fake or staged. When people follow me or like my content I don’t know whether it’s genuine or just to get likes back. On instagram the amount of comments that are vague and generic and which seem unrelated to the actual post, seem to me that it’s a flood of traffic from bots. Bots and hashtag bandits have ruined Instagram. The need to smother your posts in hashtags is supposed to get you noticed more, but how much of that traffic is just bots using those as trawling hashtags are how most bots work. And if so, what’s the point?
You have all these experts who make money telling you how to get around the system and structure your content in certain ways, leading to it being more about how you post and what tricks you use rather than it being any kind of genuine or useful content.
These algorithms that are supposed to benefit the end user seem to me to be more about keeping people in their virtual place. Unless you're famous to begin with, no matter how many followers you have, no matter what you post only a tiny fraction ever see it. The only way to get to your own audience is to pay Facebook, but I’ve found that when you do and then stop, your average reach will then drop significantly, until you pay again.
Which leads me to the wider point here. Social media platforms are often portrayed as a great democratic levellers and bastions of freedom but they’re anything but. With more and more people getting their content through Facebook and Twitter, these companies are controlling who gets to see what. If you add Google (search) into the mix here, which I know is not a social media platform, you realise that the majority of the distribution of content online is controlled to a large extent by just three companies. Instead of digital freedom, we have a trifecta of corporations deciding who sees what and when. We saw what happens when this goes wrong over the last year with the rise of fake news, especially on Facebook. These stories got prominence, not just because of the sensational nature of them, but also in part because the people posting them, boosted by clever bots, knew how to game the system and trick the algorithms. If Facebook just showed a timeline that was chronological, you have to wonder if these stories would ever have spread the way they did.
The algorithms used by these companies to decide who sees what, aren’t just making it more convenient for us, but are instead controlling what we see and deciding on the content that we consume. While the technology behind this may not be human or have malevolent intent, it is far from the free and open platform that we believe that we have. It feels more like a digital dictatorship. You have a handfull of companies controlling the flow of information on the internet, and we have all just given that control to them without really realising it.
Whatever about search, the social media platforms are becoming more and more full of content that is either bogus, or staged to game the system, and its getting harder and harder to distinguish which is which. Given the percentage of the world that now uses these platforms as a primary source of information and news, they’re hard to ignore. That’s not to say that social media isn’t useful, because of course it is or it wouldn't still exist, but at the same time, the benefit of these platforms for driving traffic is greatly overstated, and the effects of having a handful of corporations controlling the way we access information is dangerous and has potential consequences long into the future.
Originally posted on Designtography Magazine.
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