The New Era of Social Media Isn’t About Feeds
Products like Clubhouse and Twitter’s “Super Follows” offer a new kind of engagement
Open Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, or Pinterest, then look at your index finger. If you’re like me, you’ll find it already hovering over the screen, poised for scrolling. Our algorithmic feeds have conditioned us to expect little from any given post, flicking our eyes across each one just long enough to decide whether it’s worth a second glance before we dispense with it forever and move on to the next one.
These feed-based platforms are powered by scale and automation. They encourage users to friend, follow, and like liberally, building sprawling networks on the promise that aggressive ranking algorithms will filter out the chaff and surface the most compelling content. By the same token, they encourage users to post freely: Because the algorithm selects which segment of a user’s friends or followers any given post is shown to, users are incentivized to post repeatedly, without worrying about spamming a captive audience.
Algorithmic feeds are highly efficient at amplifying posts that stand out from the feed enough to pause people’s scrolling fingers. Each social app can choose — and tweak — which types of engagement it wants to optimize for, but they’re all optimizing for engagement because that’s what they can measure. The result, regardless of platform, is a feed full of attention-grabbing content.
Feeds full of attention-grabbing content are great at keeping us hooked, keeping us scrolling, and keeping us coming back. They also turn out to be good venues for targeted advertising. Advertisers, after all, are experts at manipulation and old pros at competing for our attention, whether we intended to give it to them or not. The scale and behavioral data are leveraged for their benefit as is the fact that users are trained to look first at the content and second at the source.
But while these feeds may be addictive, they’re also exhausting and numbing. When every post in your feed has been selected from a huge pool of possible posts for its attention-grabbing qualities, you can start to feel shouted at, manipulated, pandered to, and overwhelmed…