How Social Media Works

In the last post, I offered an (admittedly dramatic) introduction to a new series designed to help us find good information and recognise bad information in this U.S. election year.

I think it’s helpful to think of information like food: we are lucky to be surrounded by an abundance of both. However, some of it is good for us and helps us to function during the day, while some of it really is not.

Today I want to give you a basic rundown of social media’s underlying structure, using Facebook as an example. Though many of us use Facebook and its many products — Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp — quite a lot, I think many of us don’t have a great understanding of how it works. Also, you should know that almost all social media operates in much the same way as I’m about to describe below.

Social media is like old-fashioned TV

This is how free-to-air television works:

  1. Advertisers pay the television network to run their ads during shows
  2. Television networks provide a service for viewers — programming for the television
  3. Viewers don’t pay to watch TV, but they do have to sit through the ads.

At the root of it, social media works in the same way:

  1. Advertisers pay Facebook to run their ads in a user’s News Feed
  2. Facebook provides a range of services — the ability to communicate through instant messaging and public posts, share photos and videos, join groups of like-minded people, send party invitations and plenty more. 
  3. Users don’t pay to use Facebook, but they do have to scroll past the ads. 

Television makes its money by keeping you engaged with the show. That’s why a show will always cut away before the big reveal, or after a particularly shocking moment — you’ve got to sit through another round of ads to see how it ends. I remember watching movies on free-to-air TV, which always ran the first half-hour ad-free. This was long enough to get me hooked into the story and, knowing this, the networks would run progressively longer ad breaks as the movie progressed.

Likewise, Facebook makes its money by keeping you engaged on its app or website — the longer you stay there, the more ads you see.

Time is money

But unlike television networks, Facebook doesn’t create 20 minute TV shows or hours-long movies to keep you around. Rather, it has every status update, photo, video and article posted by your Facebook friends, plus all the statuses, photos, videos and articles posted by every page you follow, from your local news service to your favourite sports team.

Now, Facebook could fill your News Feed with a chronological presentation of everything that everyone you follow has posted that day. However, we all have that one Facebook friend who posts about literally every meal they eat and every thought that pops into their head. If Facebook gave you a chronological account of everything everyone had posted that day, you’d spend hours scrolling past this person’s blurry shots of their morning walk before you saw that new photo of your daughter or your best friend’s dog. You’d get bored and frustrated with Facebook, and you’d close the app. This, remember, is the last thing Facebook wants you to do: when you’re not looking at your phone, they can’t show you ads.

So instead of showing you everything cousin Beryl ate for lunch this week, Facebook sifts through all the posts from all the people you follow, and hand-picks the items it knows you’ll enjoy. That’s why when you haven’t logged on in a while, Facebook will show you the latest photos and posts from your immediate family — even if they are a week old. It does this using an algorithm.

What the heck is an algorithm?

Simply put, an algorithm is a set of instructions to a computer. Think of Facebook’s News Feed as a chef, and the algorithm as its recipe.

Like a chef following a recipe to create a meal, Facebook’s News Feed follows the instructions of the algorithm to figure out which articles, posts, videos and photos it should show you. And instead of cooking a tasty meal, Facebook wants its News Feed to show you content that will keep you scrolling — and seeing more ads.

Of course, any chef needs ingredients to make their meal. So what are the ingredients for Facebook’s algorithm recipe?

You are!

Facebook uses the name, age, workplace, schools, towns of residence, towns we grew up in and relatives associated with an account to learn what kinds of posts might tempt us to keep scrolling. Facebook also logs every action we take on its platform — every article we click and read, every photo we like, every time we pause to read a post.

This might not sound like much, but as we have fed it more and more of this data generated by our actions on its platform, Facebook’s technology has become tremendously powerful. In 2015, scientists at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University asked 70,000 Facebook users to fill out a personality questionnaire, to give them what many psychologists agree are the five basic dimensions of personality:

  • Openness to experience 
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

The scientists then built an algorithm that looked at which Facebook posts they liked — no comments or posts of their own, just the types of articles, photos and videos on which they pressed “like.”

After measuring about 70 of each user’s “likes,” the algorithm was more accurate at predicting a person’s personality profile than one of their friends. After 300 likes, the algorithm was more accurate than a person’s spouse.

Think about that for a moment: if you have “liked” 300 Facebook posts since you first opened your account, a company in a California suburb you’ve never heard of now knows you better than your husband or wife.

Time not well spent

We’ve established that Facebook wants to maximise the amount of time you spend scrolling through its News Feed so it can show you ads. But how does it keep you scrolling?

Well, just like a good chef uses feedback from diners to hone their recipe and create better results, Facebook has tweaked its algorithm to find the types of posts, articles, photos and videos that will keep you on the site.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean Facebook wants to show you things that make you happy. How do you feel after you’ve spent hours scrolling on Facebook? (We’ve all done it.) Do you feel happy, fulfilled and energized?

In fact, for a long time now studies have shown that Facebook actually makes us feel more depressed. Through years of trial and error and based on its mountain of data across two billion users (that’s how many people use Facebook!), the algorithm has learned that making people feel jealous, outraged, aggrieved or victorious is what keeps us scrolling. Controversial, drama-filled posts or articles about contentious topics get our blood boiling, photos of friends living glamorous lives in exotic locations can make us green with envy.

It’s not like they’re bad people

It’s important to remember that Facebook has proliferated around the world for a reason — it is an incredibly useful tool for keeping up with friends and loved ones. And it’s not like the engineers and software designers working at the company intentionally set out to build something that would make people feel inadequate or alienated. It’s just that the algorithm they’ve built has found its own way — a sort of emotional shortcut — to fulfill its purpose: keeping people on the site. And the algorithm’s success in matching people to ads they’ll like is a veritable license for Facebook to print money.

So if you’re like me and have friends and family scattered all over the world, it’s not really an option to stop using Facebook altogether. But it is incumbent on us to know how the algorithm works in a general sense, and use that knowledge to avoid the kinds of emotional traps the algorithm sometimes set for us.

One of my favourite descriptions of how Facebook (or Instagram, or Snapchat, or Twitter, or YouTube) works comes from a former Google (which owns YouTube) employee named Tristan Harris. He’s talking about YouTube specifically, but this analogy applies to all social media:

You open up that YouTube video your friend sends you after your lunch break. You come back to your computer and you think OK, I know those other times I end up watching two or three videos and I end up getting sucked into it, but this time it’s going to be really different. I’m just going to watch this one video and then somehow, that’s not what happens. You wake up from a trance three hours later and you say, “What the hell just happened?” And it’s because you didn’t realize you had a supercomputer pointed at your brain.

So when you open up that video you’re activating Google’s billions of dollars of computing power and they’ve looked at what has ever gotten 2 billion human animals to click on another video. And it knows way more about what’s going to be the perfect chess move to play against your mind. If you think of your mind as a chessboard, and you think you know the perfect move to play — I’ll just watch this one video. But you can only see so many moves ahead on the chessboard. But the computer sees your mind and it says, “No, no, no. I’ve played a billion simulations of this chess game before on these other human animals watching YouTube,” and it’s going to win.

Next time, we’ll discuss how news works in this social media landscape where attention is everything, and equip ourselves with some techniques to take care of our mental health — and stay informed — this year.

Have I missed anything? Do you have questions? Are there any topics you’d like to see covered? Let me know in the comments!

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