The Dark Side of Algorithms

Major social media platforms are using algorithms in spite of the best interests of their users, says Bruce Ableson on this episode of Community Signal. They are focused on serving you an ad at the right moment, or putting something controversial in front of you, “gaming the experience against the users to make money.”

Throughout the conversation, it becomes clear that this is emblematic of their approach in general, not just to curation and algorithms, but to moderation and management. These platforms are what they are not because of what they did last week or last month, but what they did 5 or 10 years ago. Plus:

  • The biggest threat to well-managed online communities
  • Cynical, or realistic, reasons why major platforms are the way they are
  • Why Bruce believes subscriptions could be the future of online communities.

Big Quotes

Having nice community guidelines vs. executing on them: “[Facebook and Twitter] say a lot of nice things. Read the Facebook guidelines and Twitter policies. They read fine. Then they want to grow as fast as they can. They cast that aside for the sake of activity, and they get to a certain point and by that point, as we all know, it’s too far along the road to try to reverse course. They’ve taken the funding. They’ve gone public. They’ve done all these things. Now you’re at a juncture where we have this policy and it sounds fine, but we haven’t implemented it.” –@patrickokeefe

On why big platforms don’t care about moderation: “The only way that [the major social media platforms] would care about [moderation] would be if it was affecting their bottom line. Because of the kind of businesses that they are. Facebook is a perfect example. Their business is driven by controversy. The more controversial things that people post and share, the more clicks they get, the more traffic they drive, and the more revenue that’s generated. It keeps people coming back, and it keeps people engaged.” –@bruceableson

On changing established social norms on a platform: “You can’t go back 10 years later, with a billion plus people on a platform, and try to change the culture. You have to have that culture from the beginning.” –@bruceableson

On Facebook’s constant moderation struggle: “Facebook has got a real problem right now because people hate it. It’s not that they hate Facebook, it’s like going on Facebook gives them a stomach ache. I had the same thing through the election cycle in 2016, and the two years since then. You go on Facebook, and your crazy uncle is posting stuff, and some of your friends are arguing with you about things that seem obvious to you. It gets to where it’s not fun because of that. They have a real problem because they can’t go back now. They even announced some of that this week, where they were like, ‘We’re adding more moderators, and we’re changing how we enforce people interacting with each other.’ It’s too late at this point.” –@bruceableson

On the biggest threat to community management’s independence: “Facebook could be the biggest threat to [well-managed online communities] because if they trigger legislation, that gets written and targets everyone, that’s how we lose Section 230, that’s how it gets weakened, and that’s how we can no longer effectively moderate the community. We take the tool away from the people who are doing the right thing.” –@patrickokeefe

On political intervention in online communities: “I just don’t need the Steve Kings of the world telling me how to manage an online community. The thing that worries me most is Ron Wyden, one of the co-authors of Section 230, sounded the alarm recently about how these platforms need to change, or it could get too far.” –@patrickokeefe

On why algorithms are working against us: “[The major social media platform] algorithms are all gamed specifically to increasing advertising revenue. That’s their sole purpose in life, to get content and sponsored posts in front of you that you might click on, and get them in front of you at a time and in a place where you’re likely to click on it. They’re gaming the experience against the users to make money.” –@bruceableson

About Bruce Ableson

Bruce Ableson is currently director of evangelism and enablement for Adobe, after five years as head of strategy & solutions for Livefyre, acquired by Adobe in 2016. Bruce has been involved with social media and social networks for more than 20 years, having founded Open Diary, an early social network, in 1998.

Along the way, Bruce has been credited with inventing a number of features that are central to the social networks of today, including commenting, friends lists, and activity feeds.

Since then, he has worked as a consultant helping Fortune 500 companies build their digital presence, and most recently in executive positions leading strategy and solutions teams for a number of growing startups. Bruce came to Livefyre in 2013, to help build a client solutions team, and also to build out Livefyre’s NYC presence, and now works at Adobe out of their Times Square office.

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