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This article was published on September 27, 2018

Will the algorithmic timeline be the death of social media?

Are algorithms enhancing or ruining social media?

Will the algorithmic timeline be the death of social media?
Neil C. Hughes
Story by

Neil C. Hughes


Neil Hughes is a tech columnist, ghostwriter for tech leaders and host of the daily show, The Tech Talks Daily Podcast. Neil Hughes is a tech columnist, ghostwriter for tech leaders and host of the daily show, The Tech Talks Daily Podcast.

Remember when social media was about posting on a whim without any hidden agenda or transparent humblebrag? Those were the days of endlessly scrolling through your Facebook timeline until you caught up with the latest updates from your friends and family.

A built-in stopping point provided a sense of control over our timelines. We scrolled until we caught up and then put the smartphone down again. However, the end of chronological scrolling has left many users blaming the infamous AI algorithms for ruining the party by silencing friends and promoting sponsored posts.

In 2018, there have been numerous headlines around AI, machine learning and algorithms that spoonfeed you posts it thinks you will like. These changes seem to have divided the online community. When sitting quietly on a train, I am overhearing the same frustrations every week.

I can’t use Facebook anymore because it keeps showing me the same 5 posts everytime I scroll down my newsfeed.

Many are demanding the return of the chronological timeline across networks such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But did we create this mess ourselves?

There is an argument that many of the problems we are experiencing on social media are more to do with math than any sinister plan by Mr. Zuckerberg and friends. For example, the average Facebook user has an average of 338 friends. But, if every one of your friends also has 338 connections and they all share a story, your total reach is a phenomenal 114,244 people.

Social algorithm

If everyone started posting at 7 pm, our timelines would quickly become overwhelming. These are just a few reasons why we are unlikely to see the return of the much loved chronological newsfeed again. So why is this such a big deal?

The quiet users with very few followers and engagement are slowly being silenced by algorithms that judge users by how quickly their audience engages with their content. Meanwhile, the social butterflies who hit 376 likes from a selfie or manufacture drama to get attention are impossible to avoid. We all have one of those annoying oversharing friends, right?

A personal Facebook status should not require a social strategy

Although these rules are crucial for businesses and brands, the average user does not frequent social media platforms for the same reasons. A personal status update shouldn’t require a strategy to increase the engagement of their post and if it does, isn’t that a problem? Equally, deleting pics if they’re not popular enough and reposting to get a dopamine hit is not cool either.

Twitter users that enjoy the platform for the latest breaking news and trending stories have similar experiences with the introduction of the “Show the best Tweets first” feature. Although they believed that the new features helped make newsfeeds more relevant and useful, many users feel very differently.

Once again the problem with promoting old tweets with high engagement resulted in new tweets either becoming stale by the time users saw them or worse still, they were missed completely. However, it’s not all bad news, and chronological timelines will be returning to Twitter soon. But, what is the answer to finding more of what we want to look at and avoid digital clutter?

Anyone that has scrolled down a Facebook feed and seen the same 3-week old holiday, wedding or baby pics for the third time within a few weeks will testify that the balance is not right. It currently feels like the technology behind algorithmic timelines is in its infancy and capabilities are exaggerated. But wading through a potential 114,244 status updates is not ideal either.

Are we exaggerating technological advancements?

Last year we consumed news stories of how IoT, VR, and AR were going to change the world. 12 months later, tech sites are obsessing over blockchain, crypto, artificial intelligence, automation and robots with red eyes that will take all our jobs. All of these technologies will change the world, but not just yet.

In a digital age of instant gratification, the future possibilities, and opportunities that advancements in technology will provide are reported as fact. The truth is, we don’t know what the future holds and we are not there yet.

Here in 2018, I can post an article on LinkedIn, and an algorithm will prevent my followers from seeing it. Meanwhile, Facebook has become almost unusable by showing the same holiday photos of a friend I have not spoken to in 5 years while removing posts from my family.

There is a strong argument for why we might need an algorithmic timeline and see beyond the white noise. The inconvenient truth is that even the most powerful tech companies in the world are unable to find the right balance by leveraging this new technology.

Ironically, the algorithms designed to keep us staring down at our smartphone screens are actually making us question the relevance of social media in our lives. It seems we are falling out of love with chasing numbers, likes and constantly comparing ourselves by looking at somebodies highlight reel. Maybe, that’s not a bad thing either.

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