Last week, I wrote about my social media dilemma, and I mentioned there is a price that comes with these free forms of marketing. It’s not a secret, at all. In the past decade, we have all experienced the true cost of social media with the invasion of our privacy, the marketing of our identities for profit, and the polarization of our world because of opposing perceptions of reality, enhanced by disinformation and outright lies being spread through social networks. Social media is getting dangerous with political violence, bigotry, and authoritarianism on the rise. When it comes to fighting climate change, some of these forces within social media have become huge obstacles to success.
And yet, writers need these platforms to spread the word about their work. The median income for a writer in a 2017 Authors Guild survey was $6,080 and many writers earned nothing, needing a regular job to support themselves. Free promotional tools like social media are a necessity for every author. This puts authors at the mercy of the mindless calculations of social media algorithms.
I have worked several jobs as a customer service representative in call centers. My last job in that sector was the worst. It was for a third-party contractor for a major senior citizen’s organization, but because the contractor was focused on profit instead of taking care of a caller’s concerns, they pushed a very demanding algorithm on their employees, forcing them to get off the call as soon as possible. Every call was recorded and timed. The machine kept track of your average call time over the day. If you exceeded the required call time, you would get reprimanded and eventually fired. Some workers were so stressed it made them ill. Some tried to talk as fast as possible to keep their call time down or take short cuts to end the call. I didn’t do either. I just wanted to help customers solve their problems, so I did, and I was good at it. People would tell me how much they appreciated my help. It made me feel good to be of service, but I also began searching for another job because I knew I would get fired eventually.
Being under the thumb of a machine, day in and day out, is brutal. It pushes people to do less than their best to earn their living. Machines can dehumanize us, yet we are willingly giving our time and energy over to social media, letting those machines that run the platforms control our experience.
The worst seems to be TikTok, according to a recent Washington Post article called “Sorry you went viral.” It explains that viewers don’t even decide which videos to watch on TikTok. The algorithm decides what to show you, tracking those videos that you spend time with and showing you more just like it. This enhances emotionally charged content, which can attract a viewer’s attention. In TikTok, videos are going viral with upbeat content—happy dancing, comic moves, or novel production techniques that make viewers stop to watch. Unfortunately, angry, toxic videos grab attention as well. There seems to be a dynamic that after a channel gets a huge following, others start harassing those creators to build engagement, grasping for their own chance to rack up views from the algorithm through bullying. Since it’s a machine, the algorithm is only concerned with the length of time a video is watched, the longer, the better. It doesn’t care about the content. Joyful or hateful, it’s all the same to a machine.
Different types of algorithms run other social media platforms, but results can be similar. It’s why I bristle at the thought of joining in the social media game, paying the price of conforming to the demands of the machine. This is the core of my dilemma, and I have been looking for ways to push through it. Next week, I will explore some possible solutions for myself and other authors who struggle with diving into the rabbit holes these algorithms create.