How Big Money Broke Social Media

Nothing is clear with social media challenges.

Social media finds itself mired with polarized communities filled with distrust, hate, troll armies, fake media, relentless stalkerish ads, and government tracking of conversations, to name a few things. How did this happen?

People fell for the promise of connections via conversations with their peers and to a lesser extent the brands we love. Adrenalized by new social recognition, communities formed and engaged with each other. News stories broke, change movements arose, and newfound relationships happened.

When web 2.0 was booming with blogs and Twitter and Facebook were taking the technology world by storm, words like authenticity, two-way dialogue, and transparency dominated discussions about the trend. A revolution of engagement was upon us and the era of command and control communications was over.

The heretic Cluetrain Manifesto promised two-way conversations on social media would empower citizen conversations and minimize the PR power of corporations and governments. At its apex, social media helped the Arab Spring movement topple authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Social media had realized its promise.

Or so we thought…

Now we find ourselves hustled with over-contrived social content that provokes us into reacting. When engagement occurs, big social and digital media companies can sell more advertising and conversational data. Big social networks and sites use AI-scoured data to monetize that conversational data.

Prioritizing Engagement at the Expense of Conversations

How did we move from conversations and exciting new communities to a hate-filled online world driven by algorithms and advertisers? Rather than nurture the actual community and the exchange of conversations, social network stream algorithms reward content that provokes the most engagement.

Advertisers could pay their way into the streams, too. But they found little engagement without the sensational. Over-engineered content, lampoon GIFs, photoshopped airbrushed selfies, ridiculous statements, and sensational statements all worked to drive likes, comments, and yes, clicks.

As the formulas for engagement matured, big money powered a massive data-driven social ecosystem that revolves around outrageous content, some of which is polarizing. Social networks and digital content creators allowed these evolutions to occur because they drive advertising and profitability.

The Trump Presidency was built on this formula. But in reality, Trump is a symptom of the larger problem: Big tech media companies using algorithms to reward clicks and likes over authentic conversations, all to drive advertising.

Consider how these companies protected the Trump campaign for the better part of a decade until the most recent weeks. Big money corrupted integrity.

Look no further than Mark Zuckerberg’s recent decision to protect hateful Trump posts in the midst of the George Floyd Black Lives Matter crisis. It’s no secret that the Trump Campaign is one of Facebook’s biggest advertisers. And Facebook only cleans up its act when called out. Hello, Cambridge Analytica.

It will take a full boycott from hundreds of Facebook advertisers to break the company’s stance. But it's them versus hundreds of millions of dollars of Trump campaign money. Sooner or later Zuckerberg will yield, but only when it makes business sense.

Before we make Twitter look good, let’s not forget how the network allowed Trump to go unchecked in spite of its own “terms of service” for years. Why did Twitter let Trump go?

Because the network was dying in 2015 before the Trump candidacy took off. Trump literally reinvigorated the network and made it relevant again.

Now the President is certainly an easy example of this phenomena, arguably rising to power on Twitter and Facebook. In reality, he and his campaign managers simply took advantage of the conditions of the Like Economy, a world created to sell advertising, sponsorships, and data.

Are Recent Movements to Curb Hate Too Little?

No one knows how the election will turn out, but it is clear that big tech is reacting to the significant social strife created by the current political situation. Just yesterday Amazon Twitch and Reddit made moves to curb some of the Trump campaign-related hate. However, it's probably too late.

Even if the most extreme and dangerous outliers are removed or policed on social networks, the algorithmic engagement system remains. Narcissism, over contrived content, and the outrageous will still rise to the top of the stream.

It would take a complete re-engineering of big tech algorithms and the economics that drive them to turn the tide. Advertising revolves around engagement and not relationships, so nothing will change without external force. Earnings must happen first.

Since distrust of online posts and stories continues to grow, and the social fiber is torn, a reckoning in the form of regulation will come. And the public will support it.

Of course, regulation won’t reinvigorate social media. Rather it will simply provide the guidelines to punish companies who allow too many outliers to occur.

So much for the promise of unfettered social media and authentic conversations. The very thing social media was supposed to defeat corrupted it and broke it. At least on a mass-market level.

My next post will examine how the conventional media has become embroiled in and corrupted by the Like economy.

Digital marketing pioneer, professor, consultant, and photographer.

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