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Keeping Us Guessing
Social Media algorithms share many similarities with abusive partners.
Last week I wrote about a hypothetical painter, that slowly (and for the most part, unconsciously) adjusts their work over time towards the creation of pieces that earn greater likes on social media. Eventually, the painter realizes that at some point in the pursuit of popularity, their own work no longer speaks to them, and that any connection they previously had with fans and buyers is no longer there. The algorithm had guided the artist away from what was meaningful in their own artistic practice and wholly into a place where the artist was serving its goals, that is- creating content that maximizes time scrolling on the platform.
I’m not going to pretend that artistic integrity is something that social media is alone in it’s ability to compromise. Or that before social media, some artists had never readily traded sincerity and depth in their work for fame, financial wealth, and endless shallow attention. But social media has a way of sneaking up on you with it. And more importantly, it’s not only asking artists to change who they are and how the present to the world- It’s asking it of everybody.
Talk to any artist or business owner about promoting their work on social media, and you’ll often hear frustration and befuddlement. “It seems random,” they say, “which posts get a lot of attention and which get near zero”. There are different camps that claim different ideal posting times, posting frequencies, hashtags, etc. Rumors about what can negatively affect the amount of eyes on a specific post (edits, for example).
For those at it long enough, it’s not uncommon hear them express what almost sounds like magical thinking. They’ll live by oddly specific rituals and avoid no-nos that can sound more like the realm of superstition than social media promotion.
“Post twice after midnight, light a candle, and then like and unlike the second post three times. This will ensure maximum views for the next lunar cycle. Under no circumstances edit your post after you make it or DM it to anyone.”
The algorithm works in mysterious ways, but I posit that it’s likely that the level of obfuscation from what it’s actually doing is intentional. For business owners, the reasoning seems clear, Instagram wants them to feel frustrated and hapless so that they give in and pay for ads, guaranteeing their content is viewed. After all, ad buys are a large part of how the platform makes money.
But a side effect is that regular users get caught up in the same wave of subconscious influences. By being kept always guessing as to how things work, and in the dark as to specifically what Instagram wants, users can experience anxiety similar to the telltales of an emotionally abusive relationship:
Control and isolation - While not overt, the change all platforms made from a timeline-based feed to an algorithmically generated one, means you are no longer in control of what posts/tweets/stories you’re seeing and when other people are seeing yours.
Love bombing - Now and then a post inexplicably gets popular, feels great to get the attention, right? But it’s never clear on exactly what you did that’s being rewarded.
Disloyalty - The platforms own your posts and can and do sell your information to whomever they want. Aside for the top influencers, this is not a reciprocal relationship. The company is getting much more out of this arrangement than the users.
Guilt & Criticism - Your feed is full of all your friends living their best lives. This is the algorithm whispering “you’re not good enough, you need to try harder”. Because you trying harder = more posts = content engagement metrics for them to sell.
Excessive and confusing Rules - COVID denial, racism and disinformation are allowed but nipples are not? If users are always meant to feel like they’re on the cusp of doing something wrong, they’re more likely to adopt an eager-to-please attitude and temporarily ignore their own goals for the platform.
Keeping Score - Likes, followers, comments, retweets, etc. These platforms quantify your worth into a number that can be compared against others. They make it implicit that the higher the number the higher your worth is to them, but they control the rules of the game (the algorithm) and by extension, the number of eyes on your posts, not you. which leads us to the the biggest red flag…
Gaslighting - No matter what you do, no matter what time of day you post, no matter how much effort you put in, the algorithm will always keep you guessing. It wants you frustrated and always trying to please it. The content of your posts is less important to them than the fact that you are constantly posting. The platform works best (for them) when there is a never-ending supply of new content to keep users always seeing something new.
To be clear, I do not believe that the people who work at these companies are intentionally creating algorithms that ignore its users’ mental health for profit. But it’s also very clear that the largest platforms are comfortable with suffering as a side effect. Nobody at the top is looking out for the emotional well-being of the users beyond the point that it takes to keep them from quitting the platform.
Something you’ll often hear expressed from people who have escaped abusive relationships is that at the time, it felt normal. They were in such an emotionally charged state that they did not consider that the entire relationship did not need to be perpetuated. Take a good look at your relationships with these platforms and determine for yourself if you’ve set up boundaries that prevent them from regularly manipulating you in unhealthful ways. Look at the signs. Ask yourself what you are giving of yourself to it, and what it’s giving you in return that you can’t get elsewhere. Chances are the relationship is not as reciprocal (or necessary) as you might initially think.
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