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The Future of Feeds: Social media algorithms and where they are going

Social media algorithms are extremely complex and rapidly changing and oftentimes we’re left scratching our heads wondering if anyone is truly capable of cracking the code. Read more for the future of feeds.

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Whether you are a creator or consumer of social media, algorithms dictate your experience every time you launch a social media platform. What we see online not only influences our thoughts and actions while we’re scrolling through our feeds, but also how we interact with one another in reality. This past weekend, The Chicago Humanities Festival hosted an event on “The Social Mind” in partnership with The Verge discussing a variety of topics concerning social media and how it relates to our everyday lives.

Creators and social media marketers are constantly on the hunt for tips and tricks to hack the system. But, because social media algorithms are extremely complex and rapidly changing, oftentimes we’re left scratching our heads wondering if anyone is truly capable of cracking the code. 

The short answer is no. Even the people who are credited with building the algorithm are still working everyday to better understand and optimize the very system they have created. 

What is the purpose of social media algorithms?

You may be wondering why we even have algorithms in the first place. Think of algorithms as the structure that has been implemented to give users a unique,  personalized experience, while also keeping the space safe. Algorithms are what keep your feed free of harmful and explicit content and filled with the baking videos you love. 

In a panel discussion, experts Jeff Allen and Sahar Massachi discussed the very system that decides our social media feeds day in and day out. Allen and Massachi formerly served as strategists for arguably the largest player in the space, Facebook (Meta). Both worked to tackle systemic issues in the public content ecosystem – more simply put, the optimization of social media algorithms. Both individuals consequently left to found The Integrity Institute which is a growing community of integrity professionals that are on a mission to provide the public with transparency on how the social internet space works. 

How does the algorithm work?

Though the algorithm is difficult to understand to say the least, all platforms use a standard design and structure. At their core, algorithms are made up of ranking systems which dictate who and where we’ll see specific pieces of content. 

After the collection of content, there are two basic frameworks posts go through in the ranking process. 

The first ranking step is based on user engagement and is heavily influenced by our individual user history. 

This ranking system asks questions such as:

  • Has the user liked, retweeted content from this creator before?

  • Do users similar to the user  like, retweet, or favorite the content?

  • Has the user liked, retweeted, favorited content similar to this content?

  • Does the content have external validation from other sources on the internet?

The second step in the sorting process is a quality focused ranking. The algorithm asks questions like:

  • Will the user favorite this image?

  • Will the user reshare this post?

  • Is this content high quality?

In summary, this step defines how likely a post is to promote “meaningful interactions” between users. 

After posts go through this ranking process, they appear in a refined group of users’ feeds. 

How do I get ranked as high as possible?

In a culture that champions overnight fame and virality, the question is often asked, “how do I get to the top of everyone’s feed?.” Allen and Massachi said there isn’t a simple answer, but the current ranking system comes down to the assessment of two traits: quality and relevancy. 

Defining relevance relies on the simple question: will this piece of content prompt engagement in the space it’s in? This is dictated by the two pronged ranking system pretty seamlessly. 

Unfortunately, defining quality isn’t as easy. The algorithm hasn’t advanced enough to completely quantify quality. 

Trends like the “Tide Pod Challenge” are a great example of how underdeveloped this aspect of the algorithm is.  Although posts depicting children eating Tide Pods were very “relevant” (highly engaging) on apps like TikTok, this content was also damaging and extremely harmful. Unfortunately, the algorithm wasn’t able to achieve one of its main purposes, to keep the space safe.

Thankfully, the Tide Pod Challenge has ceased to be a trend, but we still experience pitfalls such as these. Analysts have come to the conclusion that, in general, content that is more likely to violate platform policies will get higher engagement. 

Nevertheless, quality and relevancy are good benchmarks to keep in mind when creating content and trying to build a social media presence. 

Where do we go from here?

Despite the intricacy of the social media algorithm, there is no doubt posts that provoke conversation and a sense of community resonate with the algorithm. At the end of the day, humans crave connection. It would seem, the algorithm does too. The algorithm wants users to make interactions with content no matter what platform they are on.

There are dangers of an algorithm that promotes posts that are objectively engaging. Sometimes the most engaging content isn’t good for general consumption. Although there is a lot of responsibility in the hands of those creating the algorithm, there are a couple of things we can do to help cultivate a social space that is beneficial to society.    

As a content creator, it is important to consider your digital footprint. Next time you are creating content ask yourself, am I providing value? Am I starting a positive or beneficial conversation? 

As a consumer of content, it is also important to hold yourself accountable for steering the algorithm in a positive direction. Are you reposting worthwhile content? Or, are you aiding in the spread of misinformation? Are you supporting creators and businesses who stand for something good?

The social internet is full of uncharted territory. Thankfully, organizations like the Integrity Institute are providing the general public with information and transparency of the existing systems that are in place. They are also giving us insight on where these systems may go in the future. 

The algorithm isn’t solvable. The ones who built it can attest to this. But, there are bits and pieces we can use to help guide our own content creation as well as create a social internet that impacts the world for the better.

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