I love to write.

Some people like to take photos.

Some, make videos.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t much matter what you like or what you want.

What matters, is the algorithm.

The Pattern

Instagram used to want albums/slideshows. Then, after copying Vine, they wanted videos. Then, after copying Snapchat, they wanted stories. Now, after copying TikTok, they want reels.

Facebook has gone through phases including memes, no memes, videos, live videos, and now whatever TikTok released last week, I guess?

Linkedin has an algorithm too. I track what’s going on with it by following Richard Van Der Blom (pointing you at this person alone, makes this post remarkably valuable, you’re welcome). For a while it looked like polls were going to be a thing, now it’s long form posts, and there may even be some opportunities for image albums.

There are rules — that change frequently — for hashtags, tagging people, when and where to tag or hashtag, when to post, and who you need to like, comment, or share and when you need them to do it, etc, etc, etc…all to get maximum reach.

It’s a lot.

Tracking the Rules

Throughout my time working in Social Media, I tried to track what was going on with each algorithm. I would occasionally try to play by the rules only to eventually and inevitably stop trying to please the algorithm gods. I didn’t want to change what I liked doing or what I was good at just because one of these sites decided that’s what I should do.

So instead, I just focused on what made me happy and what I thought was valuable to my audience.

2 men playing basketball in grayscale photography

Part of what bothered me was the realization that these algorithms were starting to, not so subtly, change our behavior to suit their own needs.

Their needs are based around keeping people on the site.

We are incentivized to play by their rules to serve our interest of reaching and building an audience. Then, when those rules change, we’ve spent so much time and energy already, we’re likely to keep playing their game.

Tracking the algorithm changes made it frustratingly obvious how much power these algorithms hold. All of a sudden, I’d start to see everyone using polls, posting live videos, or hashtag bombing. Right now, you can see it on Linkedin, with everyone posting these long, drawn out status updates turning what could be a 10-word lesson into a 1,000 word formatting*-free* manifesto*.*

The algorithm would change, someone would pick up on it, and all of a sudden, monkey-see, monkey-do.

The Business of Social Media

A quick note for the reader who may be thinking…

Sure Jeff, but they’re a business, how are they supposed to make money?

This is sure to followed by the exceptionally worn out…

If the product is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

To that I say, I didn’t join for their business need to make money so, quite frankly, I don’t care about it. What I do care about are things like, my friends, my family, my peers, my freedom to create and share, and my right to privacy.

So, let’s not dwell on that point because I don’t care about their balance sheet. I’m more interested in where we go from here.

What To Do Next

person writing on white paper

Herein lies the question I am currently asking myself. Every year, I do an exercise at the beginning of the year called My Three Words. This past year my words were Author, Delegate, and Reduce. Looking at this coming year, I already suspect one of my words will be Audience as I have a strong desire to expand the number of people I am able to reach and influence.

This is likely to require a deeper engagement with social media, despite my numerous reservations about that. I recently left Twitter, my long-standing favorite social network. I have nothing but contempt for Facebook and its companies due to its business practices but my network there is by far my most engaged. So between my ethical concerns and the challenge of working for the algorithm to achieve my own objectives, I’m torn.

I don’t have an answer yet, but here are my initial thoughts.

1. Their house, their rules.

red be happy wall decor

If I’m going to be using any of these sites mentioned above, I’m going to have to hold my nose and follow the rules. There is little use in holding steadfast to creative integrity if it will result in significantly dimishined reach.

This means Reels on Instagram (for now), long form posts on Linkedin, and whatever Facebook and TikTok are looking for.

2. Keep looking at the alternatives

I recently joined Mastodon (find me here: [email protected]) and I’m enjoying a variety of things about the platform. It’s a lot like Twitter — in the early days — but with a few key differences.

For one, there is no algorithm. So, what you see is what was posted, in chronological order (kinda like the early days of Twitter). Beyond that, Mastadon is decentralized, meaning that no one owns it. There are multiple servers you can join, the software is open source, and Mastodon can not be bought or sold. The easiest way I can describe it is, imagine if social networks were like email: aol.com can email gmail.com which can email yahoo.com. But no one owns email, it’s standardized and federated.

I’ve also been seeing how different Discords are run, and playing around on Tumblr — which I continue to believe has a strong future under Automattic, the company that owns and distributes WordPress.

3. Over-index on the spaces I own

There’s an ancient Indonesian proverb (citation needed) that says “don’t build your house on rented land.”

Earlier this year, I got suspended from Linkedin for arguing with a bigot. He reported me for hurting his wittle feelings and I was locked out of my account.

It sucked.

It was also, believe it or not, the first time it had ever happened to me. It’s a super unnerving feeling to lose access to a network you’ve spent over a decade building, a profile you’ve spent countless hours updating and improving, and content you diligently created and shared.

However, even without the threat of suspension, entrusting your hard work to the whims of a social network you have no say in, is a risky proposition. While these networks often offer an opportunity to reach more people and grow an audience faster, it can come at a long term cost.

Therefore, I’m doubling down on the intent to grow my owned channels such as email, blog, and podcast subscribers. Each of these channels is unaffected by any algorithmic gatekeeper. I don’t have to change the format of my content, or pay extra to reach those who’ve opted-in.

Those who subscribe will receive my content, those who do not, won’t. Those who choose to leave, are free to do so. It’s clean, and I like that.

A Path Forward

I’m encouraged by the work of Mastodon and the other federated social networks. It’s nice to see an alternative where people can be free from the grip of algorithms, and where a decentralized network can help us leave ads behind and create safe communities free from the threat of being bought up and destroyed by a narcissistic billionaire.

I know we’ve got a long way to go to change the culture, but with any luck, we’ll one day see social networks where we no longer need to stay on top of an ever-changing set of rules we neither want, nor need.

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