Social media algorithms are limiting creativity and subliminally controlling your world view

First things first: there’s no image of any sort in this post, which is rare for me. It’s a silent protest against the fact that whether this link and thus its contents get disseminated to people who subscribe to my social media feeds (FB, IG, Twitter) and read or not is almost entirely down to some self-curating algorithms. The alarmist and provocative title are deliberate attempts to play the game (explained further on). It has nothing to do with whether you subscribed to my feeds or not. Only a small portion of the total population of posts or images published by people you follow actually shows up on your feed. This has been verified by several people and a simulation account I set up and subscribed to several sources; sure enough, at the start, you see a lot of posts from your ‘new friend’, but not long after – they virtually disappear. It isn’t because they haven’t been making content, it’s much more sinister than that.

The simplest reason is a mercenary one: the entity you have subscribed to has been deemed large enough by the social media companies to be bled and tithed; until they cough up, their work will not be shown or barely drip-fed to let their followers and customers know the company is just about alive, but barely on life support. This has personally happened to me for over a year now; a lot of people I know are surprised I’m still posting (and at the usual frequency). It’s seen in the statistics for my posts on FB and IG: for example, the average post for @mingthein the individual might get between 1000-1500 views or less over its lifetime, from between 8,500 and 14,000 followers, depending on the platform. Of that, there’s maybe 30-100 likes and a comment or two; that’s a pretty dire interaction rate. But note % of likes ranges from 2-10%, which is about what you’d expect depending on content. But: viewership is barely in the low teens. The average post for @mingwatches the watch company has 3000-4000 views from 5,000 or so followers; that’s a viewership from 60-80%, leading to 150-250 likes, more comments, and an interaction rate of 4-8%, which is again in the same ballpark. The difference? @mingwatches probably isn’t big enough for FB/IG to deem worthy of bleeding yet.

The more problematic reason is algorithmic. Some code determines what is popular by what gets interacted with which in turn determines what is shown (pattern recognition plays a big part here, as do hashtags, trending key words or phrases, locations, interactions and such) and in turn what is interacted with…I think it’s pretty clear to see this is a self reinforcing cycle that can quickly become asymptotic. To prevent every feed being dominated by shallow DOF photographs of cats, coffee, bearded men and girls in bikinis, some of the algorithm is weighted towards the individual user’s preferences – I probably get more watches and cars and leathergoods in my feed than the average person, but there’s still a hell of a lot of cats, too. Nobody is paying to promote this; it’s just an artefact of the machine.

Similarly, entities that were around in the early days and as a result have large critical mass that predates the tithing formula will continue to dominate because they have enough interaction to be deemed ‘mission critical’ – any social media platform is only as good as the value of its content, and if content has a lot of followers/ likes/ shares etc. by simple virtue of having a large incumbent audience – then it’s going to be algorithmically preserved and perpetuated for being popular. In short: if you’re big enough, they need you. Beyonce probably doesn’t pay to have her posts promoted, and they’re probably promoted automatically over somebody in the 10-20k range that is paying.

The algorithms keep changing, though. They have to: again, to maintain popularity, relevancy and ultimately user base (necessary to justify ad rates to corporate spenders) – you have to keep the content diverse enough to grow the audience. You can’t keep showing the same stuff again and again even if it’s popular; the algorithm must allow for some genetic diversification to avoid the visual equivalent of inbreeding. But since we’re not at the point of programs sentient enough to determine if we find something wildly different interesting or not (or at least controversial enough to drive viewership) there still has to be human interaction in the coding. That human interaction reflects the biases of the creator – it must, because it’s impossible for any of us to be entirely objective or even objective relative to a larger audience. As a result, the algorithmically curated feeds now show what’s currently popular to the home base where the majority of the algorithm’s code is written. Unsurprisingly, this is remarkably US-West Coast-centric.

The upshot of all of this is a certain world view and set of preferences gets perpetuated throughout social media; that set of biases influences both world culture and more improtantly for us, what are determined ‘good’ visuals from a public standpoint. In effect, the success of our work (both photographic and anything you are hoping to promote via social media, which is pretty much everything these days) is being dictated by minor biases put into algorithmic code that have self-reinforced over time by repeated iteration. The strong get exponentially stronger and diversity withers through simple neglect. It’s why the ‘right’ trends multiply explosively in a very short period of time – if that’s all anybody is seeing, it also tends to be all anybody can think or talk about.

Why not just leave feeds unfiltered? This would of course be simpler, but patently unprofitable. If you were a social media company, you need to monetise that enormous audience. For the average user with a few hundred feeds followed, even if each one posts only once a day and each image is viewed for say five seconds – that’s an hour a day or more of browsing. This gets boring if there isn’t enough new content or there’s too much new content; but to maximise viewing time, the system must try to automatically curate a mix of things you want to see from people you know; things for you to discover; and things that are revenue-generating, preferably related to things you are interested in so that you don’t skip past the ads and subtle attempts for the bearded out of focus cats to take over the world.

The scariest part of all is most people don’t even realise any of this is happening: possibly even those running the systems. We are in the middle of a very strange sort of natural selection that’s trying to curate in favour of creativity and “being different”, but in actual fact is doing the completely homogenous opposite. There is no inspiration from ‘something different’ if all of the ‘something different’ is the same something! It seems we can’t fight it; we just have to play the game if we want to survive. MT

Coda: A reader sent me a very good example of how one’s search preferences are self-reinforcing thanks to said algorithms; what’s significant here is that the self-reinforcement is of the most negative possible kind. Downright scary is that there are no controls whatsoever on the part of the media hosts/networks to prevent this kind of content from existing at all, much less being concentrated and delivered en masse to an individual – with potentially disastrous results. I can see the machiavellian-desire for those in power to exert control over those not, but at the same time there’s also a point at which it isn’t desirable to be master of nothing worthwhile…

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Comments

  1. Amazing article! In regard to this topic, I warmly recommend the book I review here https://onthethinkof.home.blog/2019/11/19/the-social-trap/

  2. Very true! There was a documentary on Netflix recently called “The Great Hack” which made me quit Facebook. It’s unbelievable how far some people have taken to trying to control the population. The scariest part is that it’s working. :S

  3. Very insightful analysis. I’ve had to delete the Instagram app from my mobile
    phone because I find Instagram practically intolerable. Like the Tamogotchi digital
    pet of the 1990’s, it craves constant attention but returns nothing in the way of
    tangible creative input. On the contrary, it seems to reward the ephemeral and
    narcissistic. The app also comes replete with subtle and not so subtle penalties
    for non conformist behavior. Teenage users have the illusion of acting in a realm of
    free communication and self expression but nothing could be further from the
    truth. Instagram reflects the transactional, ephemeral and surveillance oriented
    society it springs from. As a professional photographer, I believe Instagram and
    the like are instrumental in perpetuating the pathological need of people to
    document every waking moment of their lives in billions of worthless and
    disposable digital images. Might I add that the convoluted mess of resetting a
    WordPress password isn’t much better. It would be easier to break into the
    Pentagon.

    • Sorry, had to enforce the passwords/registrations feature to cut down on spam and trolls. Unfortunately we don’t get much control over how it’s implemented.

  4. Very insightful analysis. I’ve had to delete the Instagram app from my mobile phone because I find Instagram practically intolerable. Like the Tamogotchi digital pet of the 1990’s, it craves constant attention but returns nothing in the way of tangible creative input. On the contrary, it seems to reward the ephemeral and narcissistic. The app also comes replete with subtle and not so subtle penalties for non conformist behavior. Teenage users have the illusion of acting in a realm of free communication and self expression but nothing could be further from the truth. Instagram reflects the transactional, ephemeral and surveillance oriented society it springs from. As a professional photographer, I believe Instagram and the like are instrumental in perpetuating the pathological need of people to document every waking moment of their lives in billions of worthless and disposable digital images.

    • It’s both intolerable and oddly addictive. Those days you don’t use it or don’t have an internet connection, it seems one suddenly has a lot more time on your hands!

      I fully agree with you – if you’re not posting the usual hipster crap, your content is suppressed. If you are, you’re only rewarded with the whole meaningless cycle of ‘likes’ if you either continue with regularity, or pay for promotion.

      Whilst some people claim to have seen a huge increase in business/ exposure/ whatever, I don’t think it’s good for the industry as a whole long term as it’s grossly overemphasizing identically mediocre images…

  5. John Pangilinan says:

    Thanks for this Ming, I’ve long wondered why your posts don’t show up at the top of my IG feed when you post, given that I make it a point to like every single one of yours and few others that I really always want to see.

    Is it time for a Ming Thein inspired social network, one for astute photographers or intellectuals? Seems the time is ripe for change in the social media world, given that no one seems to be “happy” with the current state of things.

    • I think we have that network right here already 🙂

      In all seriousness, there’s a reason I’ve kept interactions to the comments section: too easy (fora) result in DPR-like devolution of civility, OR require heavy-handed and never-ending moderation. Too difficult (say direct email lists, or dedicated app development and support) and I don’t have the resources to support it or the commercial justification to do so. But at least with the current balance – better interaction if you write longer form, some moderation for one’s first comment, public viewership – I think we’ve managed to have a decent volume of very high quality interactions. 95,000 comments can’t be wrong!

  6. Instagram is by far the worst. I miss out on a lot of good photos, from people I follow, if I don’t explicitly look at their feeds. I see more ads than photos from people I follow.

    • Same here. And I find that the stuff that does show is weird – it’s not interesting, it’s visually bland, and the ads aren’t even relevant…

  7. Nothing you talk about is new sadly and if there is any comfort, the pains are very much shared by everyone who uses SM for business purposes.

    There isn’t much you can do about it and it seems unlikely we get a new platform to take over – and even then, whatever comes will have to default to the algorithmic games for revenue purposes. Just live with it for personal usage (‘influencers’ just have to pump more content out) and smartly advertise for business (though FB/IG can be a bottomless pit)

    At the moment there is also a bias towards video content over still (see push for IGTV, stories etc), this is to try and muscle in on YT. We really should have just skipped photography and gone straight to video….

    • I think advertising is pointless because as you say – bottomless pit. The minute you pay once, your content is throttled until you pay again…and pay more…and there is no end. The mistake is in thinking you get significantly more out of advertising than going free; you don’t, until you spend stupidly huge money.

      As for video – I think it works better for services than most products, and for a lot of products you still want to have a static image to ogle while you decide. At least that’s the case for us…

      • My experimentations conclude similar – that small budget vs free gives very little upside (if measuring against actual sales) – especially for IG. On Facebook it’s a bit of a mixed bag and people who actually use FB are shrinking, fast. Possibly paid is useful for brand awareness if you struggle to build visibility from the beginning – but it is likely you are churning out poor content. And even then, the above really only applies to faster, consumer goods – not so much for personal branding and luxury goods.

        Further shifts in SM are happening with ‘Generation Z’ – using IG mostly for chat and private profiles for sharing only with friends. It is also worth experimenting more with Twitter – it is seeing an upsurge as people search for other platforms.

        Video – people do like ‘hands-on’ for products to get a better ‘feel’. However this is a different part of the purchasing journey compared to ogling and lusting for something!

        • Yes, the newer generation is far less FB-based than we were (man, that makes us sound old!) Even more transience with the younger generation’s video clip sharing, timed posts etc.

          I think video hands on things are only useful if there’s a point of reference – a random person fondling an object tells you very little, and tends to be poorly shot. Too slick and people cry fake.

          • Ha, compared to the post Millennial generation we are old and only starting to understand how they do things.

            As for videos – that is basically how we ended up with YT influencers – they become the trust points.

            Lastly – the NYT article you linked to was outstanding thanks for that. The UX of the article was also excellent – that reads and feels like content you would pay for. A topic for another time…

            • Damn, the generation gap is real! I always thought my parents’ generation didn’t understand us because they weren’t used to the pace of change as opposed to finding the new stuff unintuitive…I guess I was wrong.

              YT ‘influencers’ are only as trustworthy as the amount you pay them. Ironically I’ve been offered significant money to promote products in a way that would be downright dishonest, ironically because I am perceived as a trustworthy source. Ironic, no?

              NYT article: courtesy of a reader…

      • I have to disagree. Facebook (and now Instagram) advertising done right is extremely cheap and undervalued when compared to other forms of advertising. It has been the foundation of my photography business growth. An ROI of 500%+ is not uncommon for higher priced products. Facebook can be a money pit if you aren’t advertising correctly. Paying for “likes” or “boosting posts” is not effective other than for brand awareness. A retargeting of your website visitors to advertise your workshops on Facebook would be a good start 🙂 My Instagram organic growth has also been great recently. You just have to understand how the algorithm works and post great content with relevant hashtags.

        • “A retargeting of your website visitors to advertise your workshops on Facebook would be a good start”
          I tried this previously and whilst there was an increase in enquiries, the quality of traffic was rubbish. Zero conversions, a lot of spending.

          “My Instagram organic growth has also been great recently. You just have to understand how the algorithm works and post great content with relevant hashtags.”
          This kinda underscores my whole point: you only get visibility if you post what THEY want you to post. My content doesn’t change in quality or concept, but the amount of engagement I get per post does, depending on whether they decide to show it or not – there are viewership stats that let you see this as a % of your total audience/followers. I seldom get more than 10% viewership and 10-15% engagement of that; the engagement % is consistent but viewership isn’t, and this is dictated by whether they choose to show your content or not – even if people choose to follow you already.

  8. I’ve been preaching the same for years. But ultimately social media companies are for profit companies so nothing is going to change that. I closed my account and opened up a small one where I follow no one back except friends and stop people from following me unless the relationship will be meaningful. I’ve made a few good friends as a result. I treat ig as something to pass time and find that too much content even if good bores me. I random search through tags and spend more time on blogs and books instead. Big accounts are no better. They keep pushing prints and workshops to make a living. I get it but I’m not interested. I now only use it for casual entertainment and if people see my work that’s a bonus. Most people I know use apps like captivate to grow their accounts making most likes fake or only for the purpose of getting likes back. If you don’t follow back most people won’t follow nowadays unless you’re big already. Users are just as guilty as ig but ig is a business so their actions are justified. Humans on the other hand… I believe in print, zines, books. That’s a great way to take your photography to the next level as a hobbyist. I’ve bought many books that I discovered through random searches of hashtags. But I’m in control of what i choose to do and results don’t mean anything on ig, a closed source platform. Better off with a web site or blog if a person wants their work searchable. Ig is what you choose to make of it in the end. You don’t need it to be successful. Many photographers that are in galleries don’t have an ig and those that do have less followers than most. It’s all hype and ultimately it’s a social media platform for cell pics. Photographers hijacked some of it after Flickr died off in popularity. You don’t need ig to be successful. Fake validation is no validation imo. Bot likes from apps are not genuine appreciation. For brevity I summarized my thoughts but I could go on lol

    • “…find that too much content even if good bores me”
      I suppose this is the saturation effect: we get used to something given enough time, no matter what our expectations or history might be.

      “Many photographers that are in galleries don’t have an ig and those that do have less followers than most. It’s all hype and ultimately it’s a social media platform for cell pics.”
      Different platforms, but galleries require a different kind of hype to a different audience – the gallery proprietors and their buyers. I’ve seen this happen in person plenty of times – including being present in a conversation where the whole premise was to see if a gallery could manipulate customers into buying work with no intrinsic merit (they could, and did; I decided it wasn’t a game I could play or win and gave up on ‘art’ after that). It’s no different, nor is it real validation – it’s merely another form of ego reinforcement, except there are directly correlated dollars.

  9. Although one has two options here, either leaving the classic social media or continue to play the game, the first option isn’t a wise one for those who rely on these communication tools for economic reasons. I don’t have a solution either but i wanted to humbly point out that there are some alternatives one should keep an eye out for. These alternatives are open source, community driven and for these exact reasons most likely will never get big but in the rare case they do it is worth to keep them in mind or if one has the time and energy even contribute to help them grow. They are called Mastadon (Twitter like) and new Pixelfed (Instagram like) and others. All of them rely on the Activity hub protocoll that in theory is so much better then everything the big tech firm offer these days.

    • “These alternatives are open source, community driven and for these exact reasons most likely will never get big “
      And hence as you point out economically untenable: the market for what we do is already a small fraction of everything; starting with a smaller pool to begin with is not going to help us, unfortunately…

  10. Ming, thanks for the article, videos and comments. Got me thinking in a number of different ways. First this question:
    What are your thoughts on the upcoming Canon full frame megapixel camera?
    Sorry. Had to try on some humor.
    Seriously, Of course the fake part of the world has been around long before Instagram and Facebook. What to do about that. I certainly don’t know. It’s important in that WE can do something right or do something wrong in a big way.
    I found the observation about Instagram and Facebook likes, comments, interactions pretty interesting. I have been thinking about going back to or at least testing, mailing announcements. Spending all that never to be seen again time signing cards, stuffing envelopes, going to the post office.
    Crazy, right.
    Claude Fiddler

    • “What are your thoughts on the upcoming Canon full frame megapixel camera?”
      1. The same as my thoughts on the Fuji: what will it enable creativley that we can’t do now?
      2. I think there is a market for a service to detox people from camera-GAS.

      Actually, I’m with you on the physical mailers. Especially if done with something a bit more interesting than the regular newsletter. We humans like change, get excited by it and subsequently remember whatever it is was associated with said change: first it was the convenience of digital; now it’ll be the quaintness and tactility of the physical. I think it’s time to buy some stamps…

  11. Rather curiously, I think tencent does not apply a similar algorithm to wechat moments. Or if it does, it is subtle enough to not be obvious. Of course there are major disadvantages to using wechat (Chinese government censorship, lack of privacy / encryption, and the fact that the vast majority of the western world doesn’t use it), but I find it positive that it is in theory possible to run social media sharing functionality that doesn’t require this kind of algorithmic filtering. Probably because tencent’s business model doesn’t depend on positive feedback generating longer sessions, and because there are far more features for corporate accounts on wechat than there are on Facebook – the monetization model doesn’t need to be so crude.
    So I still hold out hope that in the future a non-Chinese company can come up with a similar network that won’t disolve into the “AI driven” echo chamber that you describe above…. but I might be waiting a long time!

    • Out of curiosity, how do you think tencent makes money off wechat? Are corporate accounts paid for? And if there’s no paid advertising…it’s only a matter of time.

      • Oh, there are paid (clearly labeled) adverts on wechat that appear in between your contacts’ posts, but the posts themselves are not algorithmicly filtered – you see everything any of your contacts posted, in strict chronological order. (At least, as far as I can tell, but I admit I may be missing some subtle filtering.) Corporate accounts can only post 4 times a month, or else go in a separate section where they can publish more often but don’t appear in the normal feed – a user has to deliberately go to that subscription account to catch up.And Tencent have far more revenue streams than Facebook so pure ad spend is not so critical.
        Actually I think Line does something similar but I don’t know enough people on Line who regularly post to be sure. 🙂
        The point is that the forced “smart” model of stuffing as many adverts down your throat as possible adopted by Facebook is not the only option, unfortunately most of the western world blindly copies Facebook so we’re stuck with it for now….

        • That’s because wechat probably makes its money selling your data to the Chinese government and doesn’t need to rely on advertising revenue 😉

          • Yes, exactly! I wish it wasn’t a case of one or the other, but unfortunately I can currently only choose between the fairly decent user experience of wechat and accept the censorship and all my data going to the chinese government and anyone in china prepared to pay, or the awful user experience and algorithmic filtering of facebook and instagram but with (95%) free speech. Oh, and my data also goes to anyone in the US prepared to pay. Or I guess I can use Line and have the good bits of both and my data only gets sold in Japan and Korea, but I can only share with the 3-4 people I know who are also on Line…. It’s enough to make me want to go back to writing letters with pen and paper!

  12. I follow about 600 people on Instagram, yet I see photos from the same 30 or 40 people every time I log on. Most of those people, have small followings and are close friends or family. One of my friends is a great street photographer with 41,500 followers. I never see his posts in my feed – I have to go to his page to see them. I just looked, and his most recent posts have from 500 to 1200 likes, a very small number for the 40,000+ followers.

    I think we’d all prefer to see Facebook and Instagram in chronological order, but as you say, that isn’t the most profitable way. Maybe someone can build a new Instagram that does just that, and when it gets big enough, Facebook can buy it and ruin it. 🙂

    • He’s having the same problem I am – most of his posts are hidden because IG wants you to pay for exposure. The greater your audience, the more likely this is to happen because you’re presumably more reliant on it to monetize and this more likely to hand over your money.

  13. For this very reason, I miss your curated Flickr group. I understand how onerous it must have been but the result was inspiring.

    • Thanks, but in reality the result was no different – if anything, it was a very good example of restricting what the audience could see by a very specific set of biases (ie mine…)

      • Some biases are welcomed. I do wish you were still curating that feed; I really enjoyed viewing the images you selected.

        • Thanks, but it was starting to put overly heavy demands on my time – I don’t have a consistent hour a day for myself, much less do the curation…

  14. Greatly appreciate this post. I do not use social media, staying away from FB, Instagram, etc., but this post definitely raises my knowledge, about how our world is organised, to a new level. Thanks Ming.

  15. As a member of ‘the older generation’ I have an Fb account (read regularly but posted to very very seldom) and IG account (would have to check when the last post may have been) and a Twitter account (never used). I read my Fb account on a regular basis to follow a small group of friends (real, not the Fb definition) and a few select photography groups. Now to the point on my comment – I do not ‘see’ adverts. By which I mean everything to the right of my screen I literally do not look at therefore they could announce the end of the world and I would miss it. The in-line adverts are so obvious my mind switches off while I scroll down and therefore I have little to no idea what they are about. This leaves ‘click-bait’ entries (that I have to filter out), friends postings that have little interest and finally those things I may want to read. This is my algorithm to the use of social media. From this you may have worked out I use a computer for my social media, not a mobile phone. I have a mobile phone but have only shared the number with family members, I never text and when asked by companies for the number never provide it. I carry it when out to use as an electronic diary or for a number of photography based apps and aids. I make use of social media on my terms, aware of its pitfalls and bias based alogorithms. It does not dominate my life, but to be honest does not enrich it much other than when ‘talking’ with people who physically I cannot see.

  16. I am aware of this. But I am here to tell you that this was an awesome read and a very nice explanation of the issue.

    Compare your experience on FB when it was new, with the feed of FB today. It’s blatant.

    Same for Twitter. It was actually great back in the days. You could argue it’s not as popular anymore and that’s why there is low interaction, but the numbers draw a different picture. It’s the algorithm change. Your feed is now curated like you said.

    I am not on Instagram anymore, but I can imagine it’s the same.

    Another great example… I use Chromecast on my TV. When no Streams are played, I have it set to show me photos… I think they come from sites like Flickr and 500px. These are probably top photographers. I am just a hobby photographer and no expert, but I personally think these photos are so generic that they actually are boring. You could fly to Mars, and back… and now you would see different photographers featured… with the same generic stuff and scenes. I think that is related to what you said. What is top, is just chosen by algorithms, and then copied by everyone else. It couldn’t be more generic.

    • Thanks. It’s been blatant for a while, but I wonder if new users can tell since there is no basis of comparison. They might just assume that the current level of advertising/ control/ content presentation is ‘normal’; I think it’s not easy to tell if there’s selective censorship as opposed to outright blanket advertising for things you’re not interested in.

      Your comment on the random photo slideshow is interesting: yes, people tend to be heavily influenced by what they see, producing the same images, adding to the total pool of those images and reinforcing the general societal preference for one type; we had the HDR era, we now have the filter era – which itself is controlled by the social media platforms and limited to the options they directly present to users – what will be next? When was the last time you saw something totally different? I’d wager it’s increasingly rare as such content gets passed over both by the algorithms and ignored by people increasingly conditioned to like popular styles.

      Personally, I try not to look at too much of other photographers’ work so I don’t get influenced; this of course relies on you having a wide enough personal repertoire and a strong enough imagination to be able to generate your own ‘new’ work.

      • You have a good point… no, I don’t think new users will easily notice it. It might be that we know it because we felt the difference, and then we researched or learned more about algorithms. So, I think we aware because of both, we felt the change, and we learned about the change.

        Fortunately, blogging got me into photography. I am definitely interested to take photos and make them the focus of a post, but it’s also the other way around… many photos are just there because my template requires them. So, often it’s either just about the text or about the photo… or both. So, I don’t need to hunt any photography trends or getting inspired. Plus, many photos are just my snapshots from hikes… even very mundane things. So, I don’t feel the pressure to create trendy art.

        I do agree with you. When you think you got the basics down (like framing images right), you don’t need to get inspired anymore. It’s now about your own eyes, what you find interesting. But I would still suggest newbies to look at some photos of others for a while.
        My framing was horrible back then when I started my blog, and it’s well-documented 😀 I did cut architecture in half, or things where just half in the image and so. You know what I mean, I just pressed the shutter button, with zero clues how you frame the scene. I think that’s where I learned from others. Of course, framing is still about your own imagination, but there are things that absolutely don’t work. Same for things like taking a photo of an ocean and having no straight horizon or other mistakes I made back then. ;D

        So, I would say I learned from others. And maybe also by inspecting or editing tons of my own images. Otherwise, I do agree… I don’t want to get too much influenced either. But if I am in the mood to look at photos, I like WordPress… lots of amateurs or semi-pros with their own ideas. If I look at 500px, the images look like high-quality Photoshop edits, but the subjects and styles are generic and if they wouldn’t show the photographers name, I’d really think they were all taken by the same person. It’s just the good editing that makes them look professional.

        • We certainly need to start with the toolkit, which is easiest to acquire online – but requires some discrimination as to what is true and what isn’t. And then there’s the need to get enough examples of how to use it – but not so many that you can only see cliches. It isn’t easy…

  17. The “filter bubble” was the reason why I canceled my Instagram account. After looking on some kind of photos Instagram started to present me only this kind of photos and hiding other photos and photographers.

    • And it gets worse, because you don’t know what you’re missing, and in turn only look for the same things again. It actually doesn’t work in favor of the social media companies either, because continued refinement of filters leads to a very finite amount of content, boredom, and eventually abandonment of the platform.

      It seems to work in the art world though, where what buyers see is controlled by the gallerists. You can’t show if you don’t have an in through one of those people, and you can’t buy what you can’t see or don’t know about. But the difference here is the human element who has a direct personal interest in keeping their audience engaged and spending…

  18. fafield says:

    With respect to @harry, I must be the second adult in the world with no smart phone and definitely no facebook, instagram, or social media in general. (Well, I do have a professional profile on LinkedIn.)
    Ming, your data is both eye-opening and not surprising. It adds to the ever growing evidence that it’s time to get our societies out from under the thumb of FB, et. al.. A company that watched purveyors of false news spread their evil to influence elections around the world and said company did all but nothing about it has simply proven that it must be remade. This will take regulatory action around the world but the case becomes more compelling by the week. At that point, I do hope the conditions will exist to allow multiple platforms to emerge. Those platforms would respect and protect people’s privacy and also act to eliminate false “news” in return for a reasonable monthly subscription fee from the users.

    • Respectfully, “regulatory action around the world” to create approved speech doesn’t sound like a world of human liberty. My reading of history suggests significant pitfalls.

    • Ironically, through some form of social media (comments on a specialist interest website surely must count) – we have found many of the people who do not engage in the more well-accepted definitions of social media… 😛

      I doubt we will ever see serious regulatory action for the simple reason that the regulators (i.e. governments) are going to want to keep control of such apparatus for their own uses…

  19. Lefteris says:

    Social media is for really old people, physically compromised. Or those who want to become physically (and socially) compromised ahead of time. Unless you’ re doing it for money (good money).

  20. Talk of “interaction” and so on is Greek to me, and as someone who doesn’t count mathematics as a strong point, I’m sure these algorithms would make no sense at all, but my own little blog is an interesting case in point. When I have a new entry, which is more or less once a week, I mention this and post a link on Facebook (on my own page and in one group), Instagram (where I have a couple of dozen people apparently following me) and Twitter (where I have very few, as I rarely follow other people). Same process every time. Yet the viewing figures (which the website records) are all over the place. The view count for the last 15 articles, from oldest to most recent : 459, 63, 55, 468, 58, 56, 258, 42, 35, 122, 38, 48, 25, 28. I’ve never had the first clue why that is, but as long as someone’s looking, I’ll keep at it. I don’t make any money from it, so the fluctuations don’t bother me, but reading this post I now wonder who does and doesn’t see the links and whether there’s a connection between that and the number of views. All very mysterious.

    • Pavel P. says:

      There is a thing – content (topic name) – people see title and they open it or not.

      • That’s an interesting point, Pavel. I took a quick look through the entries and tried to see some kind of connection between title and views, but nothing jumped out at me. The titles of my blog posts are often based around either jokes or specific cultural references, and when they’re not, they are simply a description of what’s in the post. An example : I did a three part series, and the only difference in the title was “part 1”, “part 2” and “part 3”. Views, in that order : 35, 122, 38. Most peculiar.

        • You’d expect the views to descend as you go further down the parts since inevitably readership drops off in installments, but that makes no sense. That said, the noise floor for bots is pretty high these days, and ~100 hits is definitely within that.

          I have a larger sample size so my stats are probably a bit more consistent, but equally depressing – anything with ‘review’ in the title will get 5-50x more traffic than something without; photoessays and philosophical stuff are by far the lowest. Says as much about the greater audience and their search patterns as anything, I guess.

      • Exactly! Yet people still open it and choose to complain…it’s almost as though deep down they have been brainwashed to the point of having no free will. Hmm…

    • I don’t even know what counts as ‘interactions’ – yet another one of the secret algorithmic things that’s only of value to marketing people who somehow use it as a constant metric even though it’s both meaningless and has no direct correlation to tangible economic outcomes…a bit like measuring campaign success by ‘likes’. Since when could we exchange a ‘like’ for anything other than return on ego?

  21. Pavel P. says:
  22. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, I highly agree with all of the points. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s critical about social media these days!

    • It’s hard not to wonder what’s going on when all you see is a) out of context ads; b) ‘updates’ from people you don’t know or never have met, and c) you have to go digging for actual information you want about real people…

  23. Pavel P. says:

    I had exactly same observations and experience with social media. It bothers me for many years. It was my daily bread to think about these questions. There is no fight possible withing the body of social media. We do not have to take part of this “game”. My strongest recommendation, as others here, stay out of it! Create content outside. Find audience – not followers.

    • I think it’s only possible to exist off the grid for so long – either you are at the end of your career and no longer have any need of it, or you likely won’t be able to build one (in most ‘normal’ jobs). I wonder if it will even be an option five, ten years from now? or perhaps the whole thing will collapse under the same unpredictable forces that adopted it to begin with…

      • Pavel P. says:

        My career has no connection to the social media. Thought my photogrphs where well promoted, but it was not connected to profits. It brought only exposure to people – but for what? To feed ego. To hang out online with like minded people.

        • Bingo: Exposure = Ego.

          The number of careers that have zero connection to social media is rapidly diminishing, however. Even if it’s nothing more than being findable for a career that doesn’t have any need for social media. I suspect it’s some deep-seated effect of online shopping and instant gratification…you can now find people the way you find fast fashion.

          Hanging out online with like minded people is a much better reason, though – and allows us to meet people we might not have done otherwise due to physical restrictions. The more esoteric your interests, the more you’re going to benefit. I can’t argue with this seeing as I’ve probably made more serious friends this way than in person…

  24. Jeffrey Dodge says:

    Excellent article! I could not agree more with your comments. However, I am not sure how we fix it and still make it “free”.

    • We don’t – at least not the free part. We acknowledge that as with anything else of value, one must pay to make the transaction equitable. If you don’t see the value, don’t pay 🙂 You’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t realise opting out is an option (usually seen in the form of angry ‘we read you, therefore you are wrong and you must listen to us’ type emails…go figure.)

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        What we need is an international simple payment system with transaction costs low enough for micropayments.

        With pay per read that would also make good independent i-net journalism possible.

        • An extremely good idea.

        • There’s no reason why we can’t have it given that all money these days is virtual anyway. There are of course the usual concerns over laundering etc. but anybody who wants to find a way will…just look at our previous government.

          Unfortunately, why it won’t work is because it will take one coordinated effort to do so, meaning either no chance (governmental) or monopoly and subsequent corporate greed (paypal). We are back to free, crappy, or paywall. For that matter, I don’t know how successful the latter has been with the conventional journalism outlets – NYT, for instance. It does not seem to be an expanding market, suggesting it does not work at all…

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Paypal has a micropayment pricing:
            “If your transactions typically average less than £5, you could save money with our 5% + 5p rate.”
            https://www.paypal.com/uk/webapps/mpp/paypal-fees

            Perhaps cheap enough for pay per read of longer articles, but still too expensive for handling social media with pay per view – perhaps for weekly subscription though.

            A couple of local examples:
            https://whatsnewinpublishing.com/2018/08/why-micropayments-arent-dead-yet/

            • That rate is a bit misleading. Normally it’s 3.5-4% and a slightly higher minimum (or none, depending on your account type). In practice it works out at about 4-5%. But 5% + 5p = more than 5%!

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                Of course,
                to make business with much smaller payments the percentage must be higher.

                But for paying, say, 30¢ – $3 for a long article or a Sunday paper in digital form I think that rate is acceptable.

                But let’s hope for future competition…

                • Or the volume greater, which is presumably what they’re also trying to encourage.

                  I think readership here might drop to zero if there was ever a paywall though…

                  • Kristian Wannebo says:

                    Trying for volume, of course.
                    – – –

                    Perhaps The Guardian’s system might work (in the link in previous comment), but I suppose pay per view must spread first to newspapers that now have only a subscription paywall, perhaps pay per issue comes first. Then I suppose other on-line journalism could try without risk?
                    And if this works out blogs can probably join?

                    And it would need other systems than Paypal’s. And rather lower transaction costs to have a chance to work with social media.

                    ( It’s probably a little like with electric cars, battery and car manufacturers waited quite a while for each other even after the technology was there – until they suddenly joined forces.)

                    I’m sure there is some way the i-net audience can change from “all must be free” to “also editors and authors must make a living”. Especially as awareness of corruption through advertising is starting to spread, e.g. with your help in this blog – judging by the amounts of supporting comments.

                    There were attempts with non-commercial alternatives to Facebook, and perhaps they can have a new chance if micropayments become a natural part of the i-net (and Facebook doesn’t change in time…)?

                    • “I’m sure there is some way the i-net audience can change from “all must be free” to “also editors and authors must make a living”. “

                      This. Here’s the current situation: quality readers have always been low; the kind who value content and respect the creators. Most of the traffic online is pigeons – noisy rats who fly in and s*** on everything then leave a mess. There is almost no way to differentiate by statistics alone, so the scale effects apply regardless of whether you get unicorns or pigeons. Sites with higher absolute numbers become compoundingly visible, and quality is buried or dies a slow death through starvation. Advertisers don’t care about quality – only quantity. Yet it is of course quality that drives conversion rate which is the true measure of how effective your advertising is; so long as the people paying for advertising keep paying only for absolute numbers, this won’t change, unfortunately. It also means the platforms that we need to support quality content creation won’t have enough of a business case to be brought to life.

  25. I have never followed anyone (don’t have any social media accounts anyway). I just sign on to E-Mail-distributions that interest me (this one, for instance), and no big companies get to interfere with things. Simple is nice.

    • I do this too, but somehow my email box is still full of spam – I strongly suspect there’s personal data leakage from those entitles one legitimately signs up with; be it employee or third party theft or wilful distribution…

      • Terry B says:

        I, too, have no social media accounts, but I’m sure going by the spam emails I get, that data that I’ve legitimately provided on-line (internet shopping etc) has resulted in the spam email and cold calls to my landline and/or mobile number being “leaked” as you put it, Ming.

        • Chances are your cold calls are simply from the callers trying every single available phone number. They’ll initiate ‘one ringer’ phone calls to establish which numbers exist, populate a database then target those.

  26. This is a situation I find rather amusing. Another poster said resistance is futile. Incorrect in my view, it’s possible and very simple.
    Don’t participate.
    I’m in my early 60’s and am the only adult I know that has no smart phone, and never will. I have a clam shell that cost me 28 euros to buy, and 2 euros per month. My wife and about 6 friends are the only people with the phone number.
    No social media accounts of any kind, and never will, because for most people they’re useless and frankly, a little pathetic.
    Two email accounts, one as a sacrificial, for when I have to give an address for a reason I don’t like too much. I go in once a week, click on ‘select all’, and hit delete.
    During the many hours every week when my friends and my wife are staring desolately at their phone, or pecking away at it, mostly for things that in all reality don’t matter a bit, I’m walking about and taking photos, maintaining my antique sports car which I restored myself, doing constant small renovations on our old stone house in France, cooking really good meals, reading, etc.
    A middle-aged woman I met recently asked me in a somewhat condescending way how I could possibly get along without a smart phone. I answered in a condescending way that I couldn’t believe anyone would spend 800 euros on something that realistically did absolutely nothing to improve their lives.
    I’m sorry, but anybody who thinks a multibillion dollar entity like Facebook is going to be beneficial and benevolent has a lot to learn about the business world. They exist for one reason, to creates profits, and will do what they need to do. If someone subscribes to Facebook, they must know by now that their data will be stolen and sold to be used for purposes they don’t want. If you continue to subscribe, then you’re willingly allowing this, and then is it actually theft?
    Smart phones are now being classed as a form of addiction, and the fact of the matter is, social media is the drug.

    • I fully agree with you. I unfortunately chose careers that require promotion, and with the majority of one’s potential market addicted – that is the only way to reach them. But ‘the close’ is always done in person…go figure. 🙂

      When I go off the grid – I’ll be happily retired!

  27. Ming, there are too many important things related to this subject to comment on so I will only address one here.

    Social media is biased to more easily influenced people, so you will get a bias towards younger and more ‘open’ (including gullible) people, because advertising works best on these type of people. There is a reason that people say that advertising is the lowest form of marketing, most of it is produced for the crappiest lowest common denominator products that only an idiot would purchase, I know I feel like a total idiot when I made such a purchase.

    The big fraud in the true sense is that social media and digital advertising/marketing should allow people to narrow cast to targeted socio-economic and psychographic audiences, however because the whole engagement and viewing data is fake for all platforms this will not work. Meanwhile marketing managers ignore the elephants and just looking at the cheap cost. It is cheap, but not inexpensive.

    Regards Noel

    • I fully agree, though I think the bias against the older generation is more due to lack of connectivity on their part than any less gullibility – most of the fake news I get sent is from my parents’ generation!

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      When I was ten I became “vaccinated” against advertising. I was *so* disappointed by a free toy not being _anything_ like in the ad!

      I wish all children the chance of such discoveries!

      I later came to believe (realize?) that the more a product was advertised, the less capable it probably was – why would such intensive marketing otherwise be necessary?

      ( I do look at printed ads though, out of interest in how methods evolve.)

      • Weirdly enough I advertising has done photographers a serious disservice because the majority of consumers now believe all such images are ‘photoshopped’, i.e. fake – not only has photoshop become a dirty word, but there is now little incentive to produce a great image out of the box when the expectation is for it to be doctored anyway (but at the same time, larger and better than life…)

    • Tuco Ramirez says:

      The surprise here is that these platforms are *advertising and PR firms.* Their sole motivation is to maximize advertising sales. It shapes every decision they make. They have an open, bottomless chest of gold before them and a Board and investors behind, poking them daily for greater financial results. Social network?

      FB is simply a harvester of user and market research data that provides a free and technically cheap entertainment and user experience.

      Google is NOT a “Search” engine – their business motive is to research the habits of users and channel advertising. Of $36B revenue last quarter, sales of advertising “clicks” at Google represented $31B. All of their “Other” revenue sources, combined, amount to only 15% of the total ($5.4B)….and most of these “Other” services and products tie-in strategically into the Search “monitization” model (e.g Android mobile products also feed user surveillance data).

      Amazon’s Alexa? I love being surveilled in my home as much as anybody. Really.

      I’ve worked deeply in most of the current platforms (not FB and IG). FWIW: Apple’s revenue model/motive has avoided user surveillance and Cook seems to want Apple to be the “more trusted platform.” But, that’s not saying that they could take advantage of their position, too (watch their rev sources…). Amazon can back off on surveillance if pressed by regulation and simply stay as the dominant market place. But, the core rev models for FB, IG, and Google, inherently, produce evil.

      PS – How creepy is Google’s, old motto “Don’t be Evil” (yes, it’s still in their code of conduct)? It’s like a stranger walking up to you on the street and saying, “I am not a murderer.”

      • Any source of data is going to be mined – this is the ‘new normal’. Deriving value from statistics is not adding value; it’s simply doing division. And it’s much easier than innovation…

        As for being evil, you wouldn’t normally think that of an entity unless they mentioned it first…

  28. What is this “social media” of which you speak? Is that sorta like email?

    I have a Faceplant account. I look at it for maybe five minutes, about once a month.

    I also have a LinkedIn account that I’ve forgotten the password to, and have no intention of figuring it out. If they’re an example of diabolical AI algorithms taking over the world, why do they keep sending me hilarious email, saying, “Jan Steinman, do you know Jan Steinman?” and suggesting we two might want to get to know each other. I’m underwhelmed.

  29. This subject has been talked about by many intellects and a lot of people with serious minds; may be a few % or low 10s of the total population? A very difficult battle to fight, as these big fours are offering so much convenience to you, and at the same time trying to take away your brain. I have a FB account that I rarely use, and no IG or others … stay away as much as you can 🙂

    • Very few, because there is little to be gained by not going along with the crowd; in fact, opposition makes your life difficult. Yet I don’t think it’s possible to just skim the surface to use social media for your ends without getting sucked in too; it’s impossible to understand it without having been in it at the deep end…

  30. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE

  31. I quit Facebook, Twitter, Instagram about a year ago, and deleted the accounts. Miraculously I’m still alive. The one I have kept (for viewing) is Youtube – I think because of the way I can interact with the account – being able to switch between ‘Home’ (i.e. the algorithm’s serving suggestions, which unsurprisingly can be really good at times – I discovered the works of Yuval Noah Harari this way), and my subscriptions.
    I say “I”, but of course in my business life we use these platforms, including – in my market – WeChat.

    Coming back to your post, for the few things I really want to pay attention to, I subscribe to email notifications – like with this site.

    On a related point I think the ‘net neutrality’ days will be looked back upon as rather quaint, sadly.

    • I have all of the other three, but don’t use twitter, am also silent (but continue to exist for professional credibility reasons) on FB with heavy privacy settings, and have a fairly generic IG for the same reason. I suppose this site counts too, given the volume of comments – but I can certainly see a day in the near future when I give up everything else…

      Ironically, I don’t bother with a youtube account – content is either amazing or utter rubbish, and for the most part I don’t have time to watch it anyway 🙂

      “On a related point I think the ‘net neutrality’ days will be looked back upon as rather quaint, sadly.”
      Like all media, basically: he who shouts the loudest gets heard; those who want to be heard subsequently must pay the loudmouths to shout for them.

      • Michael says:

        True, the overwhelming bulk of Youtube content is utter rubbish. But the two items posted by Ken illustrate the other side of the coin: some are amazing. It’s finding them that is the impossible task. If only there were sites manned by people like Ken who could make a solid living working to aggregate weekly or monthly collections of genuinely interesting, well-produced, credible items like these – call the collections magazines, for lack of a better word – people like me would subscribe. But it would have to be the work of genuine editors, not just bots rigged to crawl the platform for themes, hashtags, and keywords. An editor. Now there’s a concept.

        • And the editor themselves would have to do the crawling through the garbage to find the occasional morsel…or what usually happens is we ourselves find one or two channels that produce really outstanding content (e.g. in the car space, Petrolicious, Chris Harris etc.) and follow those. We recommend them to similarly-minded friends and the growth is geometric – it’s all or nothing, but discovery and ‘takeoff’ is almost down to luck due to the sheer volume of surrounding noise.

  32. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Ming – now that I’ve opened that wordpress account, I can only post a comment by – once again, every single time, every single comment – logging into the wordpress account. Otherwise there’s no way to post a comment.
    I’ve no idea what the function of wordpress is, or what it’s connection with your account is. But it certainly appears to me that I am now being manipulated by it. To what purpose, I have absolutely no idea!
    I’ve also tried several more times to hit the “like” button. To no effect. Other people have, but whenever I try, nothing happens.

    • Got your email, too – I suspect it’s a combination of a) me tightening spam filters, b) new IP address or email address on your side, and c) things being held for moderation.

  33. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I certainly stay off social media, Ken. I have only one social media account – it’s in facebook, and I only opened it to communicate with other photographers. I haven’t used it yet. Because ever since I opened it I am plagued with notices from facebook telling me people I’ve never heard of and who have no interests in common with me want to link up to me. I don’t believe it – because they couldn’t possibly have ever heard of me either. I’ve left the account growing mould on it – because it’s morbidly fascinating watching the lengths the morons running that show are prepared to go to, to grow their stupid business.

    • They try to build the network (and the network’s value) by creating artificial allegiances, but it feels like one of those networking events…

  34. Have a look at these two videos and you will understand why some folks just stay off social media all together:

    –Ken

    • “Bedankt” for upgrading my Dutch vocabulary regarding Instagram! 🙂

    • I really, really want to. But it’s so critical to business survival it isn’t an option, unfortunately…

      • I am sympathetic to your situation. But, I do look forward to the day when folks wake up to the online world of marketing and advertising that has become from social media and effectively tackles the problems like those in the videos above. It reminds me of a forum that I used to read where they asked members to only post opinions from actual product use and not what they heard or read about elsewhere as they wanted to minimize the echo chamber effect. I am sure you would survive if this were to come as your site has steak as well as sizzle as they say in advertising.

        –Ken

        • Actually, I’ve turned down a lot of promotional requests because they wouldn’t be supported by anything rational – yet for the most part, promotions that would make sense are turned down or ignored…

  35. So true! I do like to see my interests but I would also like to see something new 🙂

Trackbacks

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