The Game Of Picking Winners And Losers

Facebook recently announced more changes to the already-involved algorithms that decide what users see in their news feed when they log in. When I read the news, I admit, I already foresaw a little of the impact that would come, i.e. ever-more-decreased reach for the things I share through my Facebook page.

Despite the best of intentions, I don’t believe there’s any way for an algorithm to successfully do what the folks at Facebook are trying to do. They’re trying to auto-curate incredibly disparate types of information.

Social Media Algorithms Only Have So Much Utility

For many of us there’s a cacophony of sources in our news feed. Everything exists there from friends sharing pictures of their kids, the books they read, to the pages we follow sharing updates and pictures. Trying to hunt for electronic cues to what matters to you or me is a recipe for failure.

The thing is, it’s largely invisible failure. None of us see the things we don’t see. If you were actually presented a choice between what Facebook chose to show and what else was available, you might begin to realize how far off they actually are in their formulaic news curating. Instead, you only have what Facebook chose, so it’s incredibly hard to determine was this really the best of the best. Would I have rather seen a popular cat meme or that my Aunt Sally broke her foot. It’s not an obvious question. How much do I like Aunt Sally? How much do I like cats?

Online Marketplaces Have The Same Issues

It’s not just a Facebook problem. It’s a general problem with trying to pick winners and losers with formulas when you have a large and diverse amount of data. I’ve seen this same problem on some of the larger print-on-demand companies I work with. It’s a result of virtual merchandise. If a human were hand-selecting product to stock, they wouldn’t order something they didn’t expect to sell. But in a virtual marketplace, there’s no benefit to a small product selection. Inevitably, as the volume of merchandise grows, those sites will make changes to their search algorithms. That is they change how they choose what merchandise the customer sees first. After all the top of the search is a coveted place to be!

Now, I can entirely understand any merchant’s wish to put their best foot forward. But it’s not the same as having a hand-selected inventory. Winners and losers are chosen algorithmically and not always on the merit of the items being sold. I’ve been on the losing end of those changes before. It’s not much fun when best selling items are suddenly nowhere to be seen in the virtual store-front.

It’s also why I hedge my bets by having my work available in multiple shops. More chances to be seen as well as insurance against one site making adverse changes or otherwise going under! Beyond the designer’s realm, those changes are not directly observable. As a customer, you likely don’t notice the reorganization, and the vendor probably doesn’t experience it either. As the site owner, if you still sell 300 widgets each day, you don’t care if they were my widgets, or if they belonged to a widget-maker in Timbuktu. It’s only obvious to me that my widget sales have dropped and to the other widget maker that his have increased.

While it is a concern, that sort of market-place driven algorithm bothers me a bit less even when it impacts me directly. I would like to shield myself from the effects, but in a situation with unlimited supply, I see the need and even the utility more. On a social networking site it bothers me that it’s not remotely transparent to the end user and the end user has no say in picking the winners and losers. Rather than deciding on my own that I’ve seen enough of what this guy has to say or share with me, the hidden hand of Facebook decides it for me.

Facebook Will Always Be Free – Unless You Want To Be Seen

And to further rub salt to the wound on my side of the fence, Facebook constantly begs me to pay for advertising. And to me, this is the most deceptive part of it all. Every single thing I post, Facebook informs me is the best post I’ve ever made and that it would go a little further if only I would dig into my pockets to show it to more of my followers! If it’s that engaging, why shouldn’t more people see it organically?

How Is it possible every Faccebook post outperforms the previous ones?
Every posts outperforms the last!

I’m not even sure how that is statistically possible? I can only come up with two ways. The first I sadly know is not the truth. That is I’m certain that every post I make is not getting more engagement than the one before it. The number of likes and comments has barely changed over time. The second possibility is that Facebook continues to decrease the possible audience, i.e. the last post was shown to more people than the next one and so on. So statistically each post is more engaging to a diminishing number of people, but the overall population is still dropping.

If I had to pick a possibility, it would be the second. Of course, a third option would be that the powers that be at Facebook are simply being deceptive and trying to get ad revenue however they can…

Whatever the case, I’ve never been one for these types of games. While I relish puzzles to some degree, the Facebook style of ever-changing algorithms is not a pleasant puzzle. And I sort of touched on this in a barely-seen Facebook post to my page the other day.

The executive summary is that I’m not one of those people to whom being social comes easily. It’s already a trial without the game pieces constantly being shifted about. Despite being over the moon when people like the artwork I’m sharing, I’ve actually never longed to personally be the center of attention. One kind of goes with the other, so it’s not that I’m dying for anonymity here. It’s simply that it makes the game that much harder.

And make no mistake it’s a never-ending game. Every change that happens, the busy-beavers that watch these things start posting tips to succeed. This month it will be to tell us all that pictures perform best! Next month, Facebook will decrease the reach of pictures (this actually happened, I can still see it) to combat the abuse. So, next month every Tom, Dick, and Harry will post that status updates before 2pm are best, and everyone will rush to follow! That one I made up, but search for best time to post and you’ll find every answer under the sun!

The result of all this is a self-perpetuating game. The people who make the algorithms and the people who will game them for their own benefit are in a dance together. And some of us are simply dragged along, feeling the impacts of the dance rather roughly.

Wanting Off The Merry-go-round

I’d suggest we were forced participants in the dance, but clearly that’s not true. We’re all free to step away from the carnival ride anytime we want. And I fear I’m fast coming up on that point. I see why some people pay other people to be their ghost writers on social media. And if I thought it was financially worthwhile to me, I’d consider it. I’m not going to be so rash as to say I’m entirely throwing in the towel, but to be honest, it’s becoming a lot more of a mechanical thing.

If someone out there is hiding the perfect replacement to the more traditional social media sites, somewhere that there are interested people who actually want to see what I’m up to and won’t get hidden behind a pay wall, give me a shout. It’s probably a site built next door to the fairy castle, isn’t it?

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