How companies control the content we read and watch

Today I look at the algorithms that Facebook and co employ and how it shapes the content we see. Should we be worried and what will the future of content look like?

I came across an interesting article the other day that discussed how we are likely to seek knowledge and information in the future or the  ‘next phase’ of the Internet. The article is a nice read and deserves credit in helping pen my thoughts for this post – have a read of it here.

The content we currently consume is shaped by what we see. What we see is controlled by algorithms that platforms and sites employ. Before we get into the meat of the discussion, let’s look at when algorithms started to play a role in social media. A key flashpoint was when Facebook switched our feeds to ‘featured’ and made it really difficult to revert back to showing ‘most recent’? From that moment the prominence of algorithms has increased across all platforms – it means we see what the company deems worthy for us to see.

This can be handy at times, but the ‘suggestions’ derived from who we follow can lead to very weird and often dangerous corners of the Internet. This article in the New York Times is an excellent read about how a radical can be created through YouTube algorithms – As a side note – the UX of the article is quite outstanding. Good enough to tempt users to pay for the NYT subscription?

Algorithms are unreliable because they can be manipulated and gamified. In the early days it was all about ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ (SEO). SEO is a bunch of rules and techniques to ensure your site gets ranked higher in Google searches thus improving organic traffic. This is of course preferable to the alternative of paying Google for AdWords. But as I mentioned in a previous article about ‘Bootstrapping your launch’, if everyone is following the same practice, the impact of SEO is lessened.

In more recent years algorithms have helped Influencers on Instagram to become more influential. By understanding how the algorithm works, you can get more people to discover your content but more importantly you get them to engage with it. And it’s the engagement which brands look for when deciding who to work with.

Instagram realised this and have continuously been tweaking their algorithms making it harder for users to manipulate them. This is frustrating because there are no guarantees that even your own followers will see your posts. What IG (and to a much greater extension Facebook) want is for you to pay for ‘reach’ – even to your own followers. We then come back to the top of the article – platforms are controlling what we see.

And because everyone can create content, there is a lot of noise out there. The article I referenced at the top suggests that at some point we will start to seek out real authoritative content outside of social media. We become extremely selective.

I’m not sure if I fully agree with this view however. The notion of ‘social media’ will likely change – but it is now part of our lives; direct knowledge seeking is nice, but platforms are damn convenient to browse everything in one place. So if you want people to read your content, you have no other option but to conform to publishing on platforms. We also at times seek confirmation bias and platforms are a great to give that to us – algorithms can make us feel ‘good’.  So we need to vet the authors of what we read and watch. How often have we done that? I am also guilty of not doing it enough. And if we really get annoyed with poor content, are we willing to start seriously paying for authoritative content – keeping in mind subscription fatigue too.  

But what does this all mean for your business or startup? In practical terms probably not much. You still need to create good content, attempt to be authoritative and compete for attention in a crowded field. Despite the challenges of organic reach, it’s still the best way to get traction versus advertising on a budget with social media – Facebook and Instagram can be a bottomless pit for small advertising budgets with questionable returns.

We have to acknowledge that the technology behind the algorithms used advances at a rapid rate; I don’t think we should worry too much about it, but simply be aware that things change very fast in the digital era. How will they evolve and shape what we see on the Internet? An interesting question to ponder.

Let me know your views!


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