Painful Truth: Social media a miserable experience in the professional trenches

The weird incentives that mean Facebook doesn’t care about its own users.

It’s a rare day now that some social media firm doesn’t enrage its users.

Tumblr caused a furor by banning all adult content, after years of hosting it without a peep. Twitter is at the centre of a permanent rage-storm caused by its failure to deal with white supremacists and harassment. YouTube just saw the collapse of a major “network” that represented dozens of video creators, leaving them without payment for their recent work. Facebook saw the release of documents that did not put its senior management and privacy policies in a good light, to say the least.

Very few businesses could get away with serving their users and creatives as poorly as social media giants do.

Why do they do it, then?

Because social media is unlike any other media. They only have one customer, and it’s not your or me, it’s not their most famous online celebrities. It’s just the advertisers. That’s it.

Old media typically had at least two audiences. Yes, TV and newspapers and magazines are driven by advertising revenue. But they also sell subscriptions or have to keep up ratings. If you offend too many people or publish false reporting, there tend to be repercussions, whether it’s cancelled subscriptions, libel lawsuits, or a mob with torches and pitchforks outside the office.

With social media, you are the audience and the broadcaster. And no one is. There is just the algorithm, and the algorithm grabs whatever it can out of the content pile and shoves it in front of people. If it holds onto their eyeballs, the algorithm deems it good, and it shall be successful. If not, well, there’ll be more content along any microsecond for the algorithm to process.

This has created a profound disincentive for Facebook and YouTube to engage with their creators beyond the bare minimum necessary.

For instance, as someone who uses Facebook professionally, I can tell you the site is a pain to deal with. It is awkward and subject to constant minor changes to functionality. Some functions are awkward or even grindingly slow. There are surprisingly frequent bugs and outages that prevent us from posting for a few hours.

How is this the product of a cutting edge, multi-billion-dollar-valued company? Why don’t they care that, as a frequent user and poster of their vaunted content, I’m having a cruddy time there?

Because we’re not a client of Facebook. We’re just a user, and Facebook treats us no differently than your cousin Charlene posting her baby pictures or a pet store posting a coupon offer for dog chews. Attention is rewarded, disinterest is punished. The bare minimum of functionality is sufficient.

I’ve seen similar complaints leveled against YouTube and other major sharing websites. Easy enough to share as a single person, but people trying to use them professionally tend to have a long list of complaints.

What would turn things around?

If Facebook started asking media companies who use it to pay for the privilege, I think that would help.

Really. If newspapers and TV stations and so forth became clients of social media sites, we might actually get some pull. If there was money on the line, the social media giants might have to actually consider what we want, not just what the algorithm wants.

But I doubt it will ever happen. Because the business model doesn’t work that way. They literally can’t afford to let us pay them.

If they did that, they’d have to admit that some users are actually clients. And that would mean that some types of content are more valuable than others.

It would mean Facebook and YouTube and Instagram and Twitter might have to take some small level of responsibility for what they published. And that would be a bridge too far.

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