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The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave on social media at Amplifying Ideas. St. Albert's Amplify Festival celebrates student art and inspires creativity. It is entirely youth initiated. Thank you so much to the Amplify Festival Committee for welcoming me to speak at your event!
I grew up in St. Albert, but I moved away as soon as I graduated high school. I'm going to start this off by telling a story from a few weeks before I moved away.
It was August because I was moving away in September to University, and I was driving home a few of my guy friends from a party. I look up, and I see green Northern Lights. So, I tell them we're taking a detour and I turn out of town and into the countryside. We all leaned against the front of my 2005 Toyota Matrix, I could hear coyotes, and the Northern Lights were just dancing in the sky.
I’ll never understand why but for some reason, one of my friends decided to start playing the soundtrack from the movie Straight Outta Compton. It was super odd, but absolutely perfect.
This moment isn’t anywhere on social media. You can’t capture Northern Lights with phone cameras. Even if I tried to, I wouldn’t get the sound of coyotes and rap music and the entire temporariness of it all since I was moving away.
Social media isn’t real life, but that’s a fact you already know. But how does social media itself actually work? And how can we influence social media?
The feed you see when you log on to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is ordered by an algorithm. The algorithm learns from your actions on social media and filters all the other posts on social media to show you a feed in an order that it thinks you’ll like. It’s designed to keep you on the app for longer which in turn drives advertising revenues for the platform.
Every few months, Instagram will release an algorithm update that changes the formula they use to calculate what posts go higher. Generally speaking, Instagram says it uses “the likeliness you’ll be interested in the content,” “your relationship with the person posting,” and “the timeliness of the post” to determine a post’s rank. Facebook is the social media platform where your feed is controlled the most by algorithms, with Instagram and Twitter following it.
Some of the older youth in the room like myself will remember the good old days when social media feeds were chronological. When Instagram first changed user’s feeds to be organized by an algorithm, the user base grew faster than ever before. People also used the search function on Instagram less because the algorithm was already showing them what they wanted.
Ultimately, the intricate calculations the algorithm makes are a black box to everyone. No one knows exactly how to get more likes and engagement. Some of the posts I make for a page I manage reach 200 views while others reach 2,000, with about 1.6K Facebook followers. The growth of a post, and alternatively its invisibility, is largely dependent on the algorithm and can increase exponentially depending on how many people engage with it.
Knowing this, I have to ask myself why I spend my time on these social networking sites. In the book titled Social Media is Bullshit, Mendelson states that “these platforms should allow YOU to reach a mass audience... it’s almost impossible... unless you have a strong network, millions to spend on advertising and publicity, or if the [traditional] media likes you.” He concludes that “the internet and its platforms are pretty much just high school on steroids.”
Because all users are constantly in competition with each other within the algorithm, there’s no guarantee that your followers will even see what you're posting. He concludes the book with a story about him and his wife raising money for breast cancer. After building an account of more than a million followers, the donations bar didn't move much at all. There is little evidence that follows, likes, or shares, actually mean anything beyond an online popularity contest.
However, when a message does get shared, the reach goes up exponentially. False information can spread like wildfire. The Guardian reported that during London’s 2011 riots, Twitter was used to squash false information. There were rumours that tigers were on the loose and the London Eye was on fire. In an analysis of millions of tweets from those riots, researchers found that there were more tweets organizing the clean up than there were actually inciting violence.
When we are examining social media and the good, bad, and ugly of it all—the hardest pill to swallow is that we are at the core of it. We are the ones sharing and amplifying messages that we want others to see.
Journalists are not the only ones that need to be fact-checking. We all do. Giving the traditional media this mandate is admitting that us, as people, can’t figure out that a tweet about tigers in London is fake.
But sometimes it isn’t as easy to spot the false information. Researchers are currently working on how to measure the truthfulness of statements. Until then, we have to be critical consumers and producers. Support the little local newspapers and businesses working hard in our communities, sharing messages that matter.
Here are two general rules of thumb for social media use—spread news from reputable sources and double check facts that seem sketchy, second—if it so politically motivated that it will tear apart your family, think twice.
Ultimately, no one’s going to care if you miss the party. Increased social media use has been proven to increase feelings of depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. If you log off for a few days, nothing will happen. Beyond that, it’s been proven time and time again that our real-life relationships matter more than social media followers. The real secret to grow your followers, and to be happy, is to go outside and meet real people.
Remember that story I told at the beginning of this talk about northern lights? That was three years ago, but I still see those people decently often on my Instagram. My favourite part about social media is that it keeps me in touch with them. I get to look through my feed and be a cheerleader for my high school friends when they post pictures of them at university graduation or with the keys to their first home. I know we will all do great things, and I know social media is going to be part of our lives. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that computers are not going extinct anytime soon. But we certainly have a responsibility, as people growing up in this new age, to create what we want technology to become. I graduated in 2015, Instagram was invented in 2010—we are still young. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for us.
Social Media is Bullshit, B. J. Mendelson https://www.amazon.ca/Social-Media-Bullshit-B-Mendelson/dp/1250002958
Tell Everyone, Alfred Hermisha https://www.amazon.ca/Tell-Everyone-Why-Share-Matters/dp/0385679580