'Engagement' Is Social Media's Codeword For Manipulation

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Over the last couple of years, we've seen social media tools significantly change the way our feeds are represented to us. It's a source of frustration as it can make finding an interesting post hard to find again and we miss things that happen when the algorithm decides for us that the item isn't something we'll engage with. Instagram has revealed what they do to manage our feeds. And while the make it all sound like it's in our best interest, that's not always the case.

At a session held for a small group of reporters in San Francisco, Instagram lifted the lid on how they rank content so that it appears indoor feed. I wasn't there but some folks from Techcrunch were and they reported on the session. They said the algorithm used by Instagram to determine what you see in your feed and where it's placed is determined by three key factors; how interested they think you'll be in a post, when the post was shared, and how close you are to the person who shared it.

Image: TechCruch

At the next level down, they say how often you open Instagram, how many and who you're following, and how much time you spend on Instagram are other factors.

The Techcrunch article goes on to report on some questions reporters asked about whether posts get hidden, whether certain types of posts get preferentially ranked in your feed and whether the old chronological feed will ever make a comeback.

When you drink the Kool-Aid that's on offer from social media companies like Instagram, and their parent company Facebook, you'd think this is all about making social media a better place for us.

It's not.

When they say engagement, what they really mean is curating your feed to tempt you to spend a little linger scrolling through content so that you see more "sponsored content" - which is new-speak for "ads".

It's manipulation.

The other factor in all this is that we have been denied a choice in how we want to engage with our friends and communities. Facebook has decided, through the algorithms they have employed, what we see. How many of you have found something you like, opened it and then tried to find it again later?

That's because the magic algorithm of engagement doesn't let you easily find something you liked. I pivot between several different devices in a day and I can have something on one screen that I can't find on another.

Social media companies like Facebook have made a decision. They have decided that they are better at telling us what we want and like than we are. Think about that for a moment. A software company has looked at what their users look at and engage with and have used that to determine what else we will see.

The natural outcome of this is obvious. If we like looking at pictures of fluffy bunnies frolicking on a hillside, they have determined that we'll see more frolicking fluffy bunnies. Too bad if you're looking to expand your horizons to other frolicking animals.

There's also a more insidious element. By using software to give us more of what we like - the 21st century of "let the peasants eat cake" - we are missing out on something incredibly important. We are missing out on diversity.

A strong argument could be made the reason people are so divided over political matters today is that they rarely get a coherent view of what the other side is saying. If all you read about is how good the orange team is and the orange team's view of the purple team, it's little wonder your views will, over time, be skewed to become more extremely orange.

What Facebook, through their algorithmic manipulation of what we see on Facebook and Instagram, should do is give us a choice. There are times when I'm ok with my feed being curated. But there are other times when I want a simple chronological feed of what my friends are up to. When I look at Instagram, I like seeing what people are doing in the moment - not a post I might 'engage with" for something they did last week!

Many things can be said about how social media impacts us. But the algorithmic manipulation of what we see will be seen, I think, as open of the reasons the first two decades of the 21st century have delivered such wide division in our society.


    Glad to see you calling it what it really is. Large scale people manipulation started with advertising which constantly sold the message that your life would be better and you'd be happier if you bought this, did that, or thought the other. Social media is no different, just less obvious than traditional advertising.

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