The Silent Switch

How algorithms replace substance for sensationalism.

The silent switch is impacting us all.

In this article, you’ll get a deep understanding of how social media algorithms silently have been de-democratised and transformed into global Pavlovian experiments.

As a PR adviser since 2005 and a digital strategist since 2007, I’ve seen the silent switch slowly manifest right before our eyes — one seamless iteration after another.

At this very moment, we got a bad situation on our hands. And as a fellow PR professional, you should be fully aware of what has happened — and what’s still happening.

Let’s dive right in:

Table of Contents

    Your Favourite Social Network Doesn’t Care About How Many Subscribers You Have

    Like many others interested in photography, I subscribe to the Canadian content creator Peter McKinnon on YouTube. I’m not alone — as I’m writing this, McKinnon racks up some 5,55 million subscribers on the platform.

    5,55 million is quite the audience. The number means that millions of YouTube users have actively subscribed to McKinnon’s channel.

    Still, it’s not uncommon to see many of McKinnon’s regular videos acquire a few hundred thousand views. It might be reasonable to ask — why?

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we should feel sorry for online super-influencers, no.

    I’m simply wondering why acquiring social media subscribers, fans, and followers seem to become less and less critical. After all, building online social tribes of influence and communal sharing drew most of us to social media in the first place.

    As it turns out, the answer is quite simple:

    Earning many subscribers, fans, and followers used to matter a lot, but nowadays, it matters less and less.

    The Silent Switch Changes Everything — Without Us Noticing

    So, why on Earth did Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many other social networks with them, go through so much trouble to render subscribers, fans, and followers useless?

    Below is a simplified yet accurate description:

    In the early days of social networks, feeds relied on network-based distribution—the more central the network node, the more influence.

    Today, other types of selection criteria are dominating our social media feeds. Influence is rewarded not to creators but individual pieces of content based on their algorithmic performance.

    We have slowly moved away from network distribution based on publisher authority to algorithmic distribution based on single content performance.

    Instead of showing social media users content based on who they’ve decided to follow, algorithms expose the audience to single pieces of content that have passed a series of site-wide algorithmic tests.

    The YouTube algorithm simply won’t show Peter McKinnon’s content to all of his 5,55 million subscribers.

    Okay, so what?

    Doesn’t a successful vlogger like McKinnon already enjoy a massive online reach at his fingertips? Aren’t powerful online influencers already making enough millions in revenue?

    Here, we’re entering into controversial territory.

    Three Reasons Why Tech Giants Are Favouring the Silent Switch

    There are three main reasons why social media tech giants move away from network distribution.

    1. Humans behave irrationally. Network distribution doesn’t create the kind of engagement social media tech giants seek to promote.

    When social media users follow other social media users, we do so based on what we think we might want.

    However, we humans are biased creatures. We follow creators to psychologically emphasise how we see ourselves — not our actual click behaviours.

    2. Content must be sorted. Even if a social media user follows an average number of creators, the sheer amount of online content requires sorting mechanisms.

    The mythology surrounding such sorting mechanisms’ apparent complexity and performance is buzzing. The buzz is about machine learning, neural networks, and narrow artificial intelligence (ANI).

    The problem, however, is that providing demanding server-side analytics in real-time based on user behaviour is expensive.

    And apart from being expensive, this type of advanced analytics is likely to be GDPR invasive and almost impossible to get right due to the complexity of human psychology.

    3. Advanced algorithms are expensive to run. The algorithmic distribution gives the social network more control over the engagement. Every network must keep the best content creators happy but not happier than they need to stay.

    The Money Web is a Double-Edged Sword for Content Creators and Social Media Users Alike

    I love the idea of the social web. I love the idea of a democratic and neutral space where everyone has a voice, where communities can form unbound by geographical constraints, and where everyone is connected.

    “Here comes everybody,” Clay Shirky wrote.

    Two decades ago, the network-based Hippie Web (2005-2015) had a burgeoning blogosphere and lively forums where anyone discussed ideas, and people joined together in communities around causes and interests.

    We were social media optimists who cited The Cluetrain Manifesto and argued for net neutrality.

    One World - Paul Downey
    Credit to Paul Downey for this wonderful illustration.

    However, few we’re making money. Instead, this widespread notion is that information wants to be free spearheaded by open-source enthusiasts. We saw the advent of Napster and The Pirate Bay.

    It was fun, but it had to end at some point.

    Enter the Money Web (2016-present).

    Today, successful influencers can earn a full-time living from online content creators. Not only that — they can get rich. We have a new and growing creative class.

    The cost of algorithmic distribution is a prize that we all must pay. Content must drive clicks, and creators must produce content that drives those clicks.

    The digital economy is growing, and we reward those who can attract people’s attention. Monetisation makes it possible for content creators to go full time, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Using algorithms to get people to click ads is essential.

    In the process, a few tech giants are dictating not only what we get to see, but what should be created too.

    How the Silent Switch is Changing the Game to Clickbait, Sensationalism, and Winner-Takes-All

    The silent switch from network-based distribution to algorithm-based distribution is changing the game for everyone — especially for regular businesses.

    And that’s where almost all of us PR professionals work — in regular businesses.

    For those of us who create online content on behalf of an organisation, the effects of the silent switch are often devastating.

    On the “old” social web where earning subscribers, fans, and followers count, even not so spectacular corporate content was able to find its way to a reasonable audience:

    Network-Distribution - The Silent Switch
    Once upon a time, we could earn trust and be influential based on that trust.

    But on today’s social web, where algorithmic distribution disregards earning trust over earning clicks, sensationalism will ultimately prevail.

    Algorithm-Distribution - The Silent Switch
    Today, it’s “go big or go home”.

    The winner-takes-all situation we have today isn’t necessarily evil in itself. Theoretically, algorithmic distribution should result in better content through competition for everyone involved.

    In a way, the playing field today is levelled. As long as you’re prepared to invest heavily in the risky business of creating the type of sensational content that ultimately drives ads, that is.

    The problem under this new paradigm is fundamental — loyalty and trust are punishable behaviours.

    Free Market Dynamics Versus Running Global Experiments on Humans

    I hear many people discussing online influencers. There’s a fascinating — and often provoking! — allure to them.

    Many influencers make incredible amounts of money by churning out sensational content.

    In a sense, this is nothing new. Neil Postman famously warned us that we might be “amusing ourselves to death”. And that was back in 1985. Conservatism hasn’t been a winning bet when it comes to media evolution.

    Also, you don’t need to be a radical capitalist to suggest that private companies strive for profits. No one is forcing Peter McKinnon to play by YouTube’s rules.

    However, as a regular organisation, where most PR professionals work, we cannot choose to stay away from the digital space. Digital is too prominent in our societies.

    Will this small group of businesses surpass business as usual and become totalitarian structures we must inhabit?

    It’s no coincidence that terms of services are lengthy and hard-to-read disclaimer documents designed for scrolling past while their prominent content is dopamine-inducing click baits.

    Tech giants have given themselves explicit permissions to run large-scale Pavlovian experiments on populations.

    Crushing the Algorithm

    Content that can attract instantaneous momentum and make a big splash throughout each series of iterative testing will outperform other types of content.

    As for YouTube, this is perhaps most clearly demonstrated manifested by the record-breaking MrBeast.

    The fact that MrBeast has millions of followers on YouTube is not fundamental for his continuous success — his style of extravagant and over-the-top videos would go viral regardless of which account posted them.

    MrBeast - Largest Pizza - Thumbnail
    “Are you not entertained?”

    I’ve watched several in-depth interviews with MrBeast, and it’s clear that he’s a brilliant content creator that has been publishing videos on YouTube for a long time before his public breakthrough.

    Here’s the point: Algorithmic distribution doesn’t mean that content creators can’t reach a vast audience. Innovative creators, like MrBeast, will find ways to negotiate the algorithms and go viral repeatedly.

    Social networks condition content creators to create sensational content, and they condition corporate communicators to stay away and rely on advertising instead.

    While we can appreciate MrBeast’s videos as welcome distractions, as pure dopamine-infused entertainment for the masses, we do miss out on content created by individuals and organisations that could’ve been allowed to reach their already-earned subscribers, fans, and followers.

    For PR, this is rough but fair.

    Today, social media need user-generated content more than ever. But they don’t need our corporate content, only our budgets.

    The Social Media Playbook for Public Relations Professionals

    Many organisations have spent serious resources attracting subscribers, fans, and followers on social media.

    But the value of having subscribers, fans, and followers is quickly eroding.

    As PR professionals, we must be rational.

    We should compare the current situation with our long-standing relationship with traditional news media. Traditional news media is powerful but imperfect; this is why PR professionals must manage news media. The same goes for social media.

    It’s not our place as professional communicators to tell journalists how to do their jobs, just as it isn’t our place to tell neither tech giants nor their content creators how to go about their business.

    Our job is to help organisations navigate the complexity of the modern media landscape.

    The silent switch to algorithmic distribution has profound and severe implications for our society. But our job as PR professionals isn’t to fix any of these problems; our job is to help organisations communicate efficiently.

    Communication is an ever-changing domain. So, we need to identify new opportunities as they arise. And we must adapt as new challenges come into play.

    While it’s not our job to fix everything that’s not great with social media, it is our job to identify significant changes, where the silent switch is fundamental, and find ways to make organisational communication work.

    Spin for the win,

    Signature - Jerry Silfwer - Doctor Spin

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


    Avatar of Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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    Influencer inflation is when regular social media users start to mimic influencer mannerisms — without having notable audiences.
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