How The Users of Social Media Can Ruin Social Media Platforms
The year was 2005 and social media had just started to take off. Facebook was only available to college students who could produce an email address that was attached to a college or university email server, so that left one option to the rest of the world – MySpace. I was a college student at this point, but my school didn’t give us student email addresses to use, so the only social media option I had was Myspace. It started off simply enough with everyone’s MySpace pages looking identical. You pretty much filled in the blanks with personal information, added pictures, posted opinions on your feed or whatever you felt like. The problem came when users started coding their pages to display all of the nonsense they wanted to because the people behind the platform didn’t regulate the customization of the platform. You could go on someone’s MySpace page and it be a generic, informational page about the person. Most people, however, would tweak their pages with animated backgrounds and wallpapers, music that started playing as soon as you went on their page, and all sorts of nonsense that could cause the computer of the person viewing your page to lag or crash.
There were no barriers to MySpace, and that was the downfall. People wanted to post about themselves and make their pages unique, but nobody wanted to actually look at anyone else’s pages because they would often be a jumbled mess or cause their computers to lag. In the end, the users of MySpace were the killers of the platform. When Facebook opened up to the public, it made MySpace obsolete. You didn’t have to worry about your computer crashing or having to look at headache-inducing pages. Facebook looked the same for everyone and wasn’t as customizable as MySpace, but it allowed people to see and interact with the same people showing the same information – without having a laggy wallpaper background of dancing hippos or being subjected to whiny emo music, just because you wanted to find someone’s birthday from their page.
Remember the Vine app? That was a big deal for a few years, and it was killed as well. You could share short videos with the world that required minimal time and effort to participate with. There were popular pages on Vine and it was a big deal. People were making money from the platform because they were placing products in their videos or doing actual, short commercials to the point that the platform was overrun with them. Vine didn’t have any practical, internal regulations concerning paid product placement, so it became a free for all to the point that you couldn’t view anyone’s Vine uploads and see much original content anymore. It had become nothing more than an ad platform for most of the popular people posting on it, and Instagram took notice. Instagram was well established at this point and decided to pick up the slack of Vine by integrating fifteen second videos into their platform, which was eventually extended to a full minute of video.
My first Instagram post was in 2011, on the same @jdrewsilvers account I use now. It was a different type of platform when I started, as you could only post square photos, there was no video, no story posts, and it was only available to iPhone users. I didn’t start using it as a marketing tool until 2012, but like I said, things were different back then as compared to now. If I had a dozen people following me and I made a post on my account, all twelve of those followers would see that post. If you posted something, your followers would see it in their feed - full stop. That changed a few years ago in 2016 when Instagram started using an algorithm which curated your feed not by WHO you follow, but by the type of posts you regularly interact with. So someone could be following my account, but if they didn’t regularly like or comment on my posts, there is a good chance they wouldn’t see my posts in their feed chronologically. My content would still be in their feed, but it would be much farther down the list, and if that follower didn’t scroll down for a significant amount of time, they wouldn’t see what I was posting.
I have a theory on why Instagram implemented the algorithm in the first place and also why it continues to tweak the properties of that algorithm to work against its users. You see, back in the early days, when I first started using it as a marketing option (as well as a personal account) there was a spamming activity a lot of people did called a “Mega Shoutout” where someone would post a picture with a description that said something to the effect of “If you see this, follow me, leave a comment, tag a bunch of friends, and I’ll pick one person who does that and feature them on my account.” So, if you completed those requirements, and were chosen as the winner, your picture would be posted on the account of the person who hosted the “Mega Shoutout”. So your account would be shown to the host’s followers. The person who hosted the shoutouts generally had a large following of a few thousand people. This worked well for people who had more edgy accounts, beauty accounts, or were pushing some sort of product. I always saw these as being disingenuous and spammy, so I never participated in them. It was such an issue at the end of 2015 and early 2016 that sometimes my Instagram feed would be full of nothing but these “Mega Shoutout” posts because everyone wanted to grab superficial followers to have that count go up and be more likely to be noticed. Instagram fought back by banning the practice in their Terms of Service, but that didn’t stop people from doing it and policing it was practically impossible, so guess what happened? The algorithm happened. The curated, algorithm-centric feed helped fight spam posts like these “Mega Shoutouts” and made them practically irrelevant and ineffective.
The algorithm being implemented had the adverse effect of stifling growth of many business or service accounts as well, which seems to have been calculated and planned. Not long after the algorithm came into play, also came the option to designate your Instagram account as a personal account or a business account. Business accounts could now pay for advertising to expose their posts to people the algorithm had taken away. As far as a business decision is concerned, it makes sense to offer paid advertising for businesses. Unfortunately, I’ve tried it numerous times on my own and have seen no results from paying for the service.
When change happens with any social media service, people always try to find a way to go around the rules or “outsmart” the systems put in place. I put that word in quotations, because the people who write the coding for Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform are always a few steps ahead of whatever new trick you’re doing. Once the algorithm started making shoutouts irrelevant, people started making “share groups” which also have other names like “comment pods” or just “pods”. Basically, people with similar accounts, whether that be art, sports, beauty, lifestyle, whatever, will group together and agree to all comment on each other's posts and like them as soon as they are posted. A group of people instantly engaging with a post had a tendency to make the algorithm see that post as more relevant, and then more people who aren’t a part of the “pod” will see the post on their explore page. These groups tend to have strict rules about how the members are required to engage with all of the other members, and if you don’t participate, you’ll be kicked out. This instant engagement idea worked...for a while, until it didn’t. Not long after “pods” became all the rage, Instagram tweaked their algorithm to notice the patterns of the same groups of people instantly liking the posts from each other and they stopped being so effective. The pod groups noticed, and realized they could temporarily share pictures of the people in their pods and again curtail the algorithm. Everyone in the group reposts a picture from one pod member on their own accounts around the same time. So one person in the group has a featured picture on everyone else’s feed for a set amount of time, spamming their brand or product to a bunch of people at the same time. Instagram noticed, Instagram tweaked the algorithm again, and made this practice much less effective, while also stifling the growth and engagement of the people who participate in the pods. Yeah, they do that too. If you’re a member of a pod or share group, chances are, your account has been internally flagged since you’re spamming the platform. Some people call this “shadowbanning” or say they have been “shadowbanned”. Social media platforms say this practice doesn’t exist, but I think it does in some form since the people who get involved in pods tend to not grow at all outside of the pods themselves, which, as I said before are also pretty ineffective today.
Social media platforms and the people who design them have much more information than most of their users. Any attempt the users make to go around the rules put in place by said platform causes them to react. Instagram doesn’t want to become Vine, with nothing but spam and paid promotions taking over their platform. So, anytime a group of people comes together to “outsmart” them, they study it and put things in place to block those actions. These new rules always create collateral damage to the users who don’t participate in these practices. MySpace was ruined by it’s users and collapsed, even though there were many people who didn’t cause the problems. Vine was also ruined by it’s users and collapsed for the same reasons, and left those abiding by the rules with no platform to use. Instagram is doing the same thing more proactively than the platforms of the past, but those who are trying to do things correctly are still affected negatively. If the shoutouts of the early days hadn’t become so widespread, the algorithm would most likely have happened much later or not happened at all. If the “pods” never existed, it wouldn’t have been further tweaked to single out those who existed as “support” to those they interact with on a calculated basis. This last tweak that happened due to the pods being in existence also killed the effectiveness of groups giveaways. Again, collateral damage.
This is all my opinion, of course, but it’s information I have taken into account because I genuinely pay attention to all of these trends and dissect them internally. I haven’t ever participated in “mega shoutouts”, “pods”, or “share groups” but have been asked to on multiple occasions by many people. Even though I never participated, I always paid attention to those I knew who did, and how they did or didn’t grow. I was also affected by other people’s actions negatively as every time the algorithm is tweaked, it changes my own engagement in a negative way.
I don’t believe in trying to game the system or get around those systems in place for the reasons I outlined in this blog. The more you try to work around those systems, the more restrictions are put into place, not just for you, but for the platform as a whole and everyone who uses it. With so many social media platforms being ruined by their users in the past, this is something I always fear happening to Instagram. Supporting others and promoting them because you love or own their work is a great thing. Calculated promotion via an obligation to a group of people is something I’ll never see as positive, and neither does the platform it’s happening on.
Just remember – if you think you’re smarter or a few steps ahead of the people who are designing a social media platform behind the scenes – I promise, they are miles ahead of you.
-J. Drew Silvers