Why algorithms might just be the death of social media

algorithmS-Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

For years the great social media using public knew little or nothing about algorithms, the great tech solution for figuring out what we are exposed to online, but now it’s in the headlines almost as much as a This Morning scandal story.

Algorithms are clearly a vital part of ensuring the recommender systems that surround our activities on social media channels are doing their job for the brands that pay for access to our feeds.

They are also seen by some as intrusive, irritating and even tiresome. So what to do?

Rosie Fleming, Audience Intelligence Strategist at iCrossing, sets out what social media platforms and brands might need to do if they don’t want to be left at risk of death by algorithm…

Rosie-Fleming-icrossing
Rosie Fleming, iCrossing

Remember when Instagram was purely about sharing your life with family and friends? You’d log on to see what your mates had done at the weekend or post a picture of your extremely average culinary skills.

It was a simpler time when the sole purpose of mainstream social platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, was for people to connect with one another. A time when users had total autonomy on the content they saw because their feed was determined entirely by the accounts they chose to follow.

Today, our feeds are full of ads, suggested posts from people we don’t follow, and a cycle of similar content posted by a shrinking subset of people we do follow.

Is it becoming tiresome, controlling and increasingly off-putting? Or do users enjoy the opportunity to discover and explore new things relevant to their interests, and new content creators?

Either way, the culprit is the ever-maturing algorithm.

What’s the value of an algorithm?

In the context of the internet, algorithms refer to “recommender systems” – coded systems to help internet users find their way in the plethora of digital content.

Platforms collect data from your online behaviour – what you like, share, watch, browse and so on – to build an algorithm designed to show you more of what you engage with most.

Many social platforms generate most of their revenue through ads. As such, it’s vital for business that they keep users on platform and have a rich array of targeting options for marketers to activate against.

Algorithms help them do both, luring people in by showing more of what interests them, and enticing marketers in by incredibly detailed and accurate in-market and interest-based targeting options.

 

social-media-Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay
A-list: Social media revolves around a world of algorithms.

On paper, these algorithms sound harmless, and even preferable. In reality, there are fundamental flaws in the increasingly demanding new generations’ desire for authentic, purpose led and authoritative voices across social media.

Where the algorithm goes wrong

  1. Content gets repetitive

The average Facebook user has 2,000 different stories that they could potentially see every day, but they’ll only end up seeing about 200 of them (Business Insider).

This means that potentially more interesting content is being buried by content the algorithm deems we’d find interesting.

Someone might love pizza, but they don’t want it for every meal. It’s the same on social. Someone might enjoy and engage with pizza content, but they don’t want their feed to be a sea of cheese and tomato. People want variety.

  1. A toll on your decision making

Recommender systems have been described as a “psychic intrusion”, quietly manipulating what someone is exposed to online, and in turn, what someone understands to be their own preferences and tastes.

We are left feeling in some instances misunderstood (‘why does Instagram think I ride a BMX?’) but in other moments unnervingly seen (or heard).

It is in these eerie moments that social media seems more in control of our choices than we are.

We are constantly competing with the algorithm, unsure how we would have behaved if we’d been left to our own devices.

Moving away from algorithm-based platforms 

According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, Instagram engagement is declining, with Reels, in particular, seeing a significant drop-off in user engagement.

Combine this with the fact that Meta hasn’t reported any official stats on average time spent on the platform since 2016, things can’t be good.

While several platforms like Mastodon and Tumblr are emerging as popular alternatives to the mainstream platforms, interest in one platform has soared, Hive Social.

mastodon
Emerging platforms: New social media alternatives like Mastodon are on the rise.

As of November 2022, it was the top social app on Apple’s App Store, surpassing even TikTok, and in December 2022 it has reached 2 million downloads, with the pace of those downloads accelerating.

Much of its sudden popularity is due to how similar it looks and feels to Twitter — at least superficially. However, there are two major differences – no algorithms and no promoted posts.

Hive Social prides itself on being 100% organic and producing a purely chronological timeline.

This is a welcome throwback to the early days of social media which will especially appeal to the large volume of people angered by the current power of the algorithm to decide upon, and in turn hide, content.

People are unlikely to go cold turkey

Social media algorithms are designed to keep you hooked. Despite all the above, they work, and prove hard to walk away from.

These alternative platforms are appealing and growing, but, while they still have relatively low user numbers, and as a result, limited content, we can’t see people leaving mainstream social media just yet.

Instead, we predict a weening off period, as people slowly migrate to algorithm-free platforms.

Mainstream social platforms will need to act if they are to avoid death by algorithm.   

What brands need to do

When it comes to continuing to thrive on social media channels, be they mainstream or alternative and new platforms, brands need to think back to the days before paid social gave us the incredible power to push through the algorithm and reach users with the highest propensity to engage.

Brands need to approach social media like they did when we couldn’t relay on paid promotion and had to win a place on social media feed based on creativity, relevancy, and originality.

social-media-users-Image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay
End user: Brands need to put the social media audience first again, says Fleming.

Brands need to ensure that social media content is rooted in audience-first insight that ensures it had purpose and relevancy for their most valuable audiences both current customers and potential new ones.

Leveraging audience insights surrounding interest and engagement points to inform, prioritise and plan social media content is the winning formula.

Additionally, brands need to move away from a one size fits all approach to social media content production if they haven’t already.

Audience expectations and mindsets differ across channels, so content posted and leveraged in paid social ads needs to reflect this.

Always ensure that when planning and producing content it’s platform first, meaning that it’s specifically designed and created for the social media platform it is intended for. Not just resized creative assets to fit channel specs.

Final thoughts

Social media channels will always play a vital role in brands’ marketing mixes, building communities, driving brand awareness, consideration and conversions, but we need to make a conscious change in approaches that rely too heavily on paying to play.

Social media strategies and content both across organic and paid need to be audience-first, always.