On 26 August I posted to a writers’ group on Facebook an invitation to critique the two paragraphs that open Bongs For Steve. I wanted a cross-section of reactions. The post drew no response whatsoever.
Three days later I submitted the same post again, to the same group, with a small modification. Rather than add a hyperlink to a blog on my website, which generated in the post an image of the novel’s cover, I uploaded the cover as an image directly.
The post immediately began to draw comments, many of them very helpful. More than 100 flowed in.
The most interesting element of the experiment was the need for it. Facebook makes and acts on its rules in secret. It was only through removing the link and reposting that I could identify the reason my first post was ignored: Facebook hadn’t distributed it.
A second element of interest is what this means for what we see on Facebook. Of my two posts, the first was the more useful for readers, because it linked them to more information. But that wasn’t the post readers were shown.
Since Elon Musk bought it and relabelled it X, Twitter has behaved much the same.
Musk defended on 4 October the site’s declining to distribute links, responding to a tweet showing a dramatic fall in referrals to news sites:
“Our algorithm tries to optimize time spent on X, so links don’t get as much attention, because there is less time spent if people click away,” Musk revealed.
“Best thing is to post content in long form on this platform.”
It had been a feature of Twitter that it distributed links to other sites widely. At one time that was also a feature of Facebook. Use of either site had exposed you to a cornucopia of independent resources.
Now you’re diverted much more rarely from either platform’s dreary interface, with its inflexible handling of images and its auto-truncating of comments. The long-form content Musk wants on X, originally designed to share 50-word bulletins, appears as repellent slabs of text over a single picture or video. Linked content from other sites no longer arrives in your feed with a headline.
At one time people you had friended or followed on social media would alert you to great material that they had found elsewhere, and invite you to comment. Reporters and bloggers could showcase their best stuff.
Now most platforms behave like television stations, doing whatever they can to discourage changing the channel.
I’m far from the first to be pointing this out, although recent changes at X have contributed to the trend’s being represented as industry-wide.
Last month Kyle Chayka sought to explain at The New Yorker why the internet is no longer fun, and this month Jason Parham posted a similar lament at Wired. Both authors remembered fondly their enthusiasm for social media when it was pioneered, and recorded their disappointment in what it’s become.
The prolific commentator Cory Doctorow has coined the term enshittification to describe the degrading of the online environment, observing that tech conglomerates long ago lost interest in bringing their A-games to users.
“A tech platform is like a Jenga tower composed of infinitely divisible blocks,” Doctorow wrote in a recent analysis of Facebook parent Meta and others.
“The Jenga players are the product managers and executives who have run out of the ability to grow by attracting new business, thanks to their monopoly dominance. Now they compete with one another to increase the yield from their respective divisions, by visiting pain upon the business customers and end users their platform connects.
“By tiny increments, they increase the product’s cost, lower its reliability, strip it of its utility, and then charge rent to restore its functionality.” [I’ve added a line break and three commas for clarity.]
A million knobs
How is this done? In a related post, Doctorow offers a helpful analogy:
“I call this process ‘twiddling’. Tech platforms are equipped with a million knobs on their back-ends, and platform operators can endlessly twiddle those knobs, altering the business logic from moment to moment, turning the system into an endlessly shifting quagmire where neither users nor business customers can ever be sure whether they’re getting a fair deal.”
A part of the twiddling is the throttling, as it’s called, of posts that carry links to other websites. And doubtless the throttling is very fine-grained. Some links from some posters will be given wide circulation; others will get some circulation; others will get almost none. Sometimes the throttling will be good for most users (no-one wants their feed overrun with free ads); in other cases it won’t.
Beneath the embedded link example is a much broader point: the twiddling Doctorow references happens off-screen. Neither Facebook nor Twitter nor any other big platform posts weekly bulletins alerting us to the week’s biggest twiddles – let alone quarterly forecasts of what to expect.
Musk at one point claimed he had released publicly much of the code that operated X’s distribution algorithm, which allowed some analysts to post guidelines on what sort of content would fly.
But his purchase of Twitter did us a much bigger service, for his capricious adjustments showed anyone watching what should have been obvious: that the readership you have built up on social media is not yours but the site owner’s, sustained at their pleasure.
It’s been obvious in the year since Musk bought Twitter that insightful and public spirited voices have withdrawn their voluntary labour. Some have referenced this very arbitrariness, and the disrespect it implies, as motivating them to curate their content elsewhere. Others have spread their efforts through multiple platforms, adding workload while diminishing reach. Yet others are simply posting less frequently.
Much of what’s left is idle chit-chat and people with something to sell, leavened with good stuff from talent that sees no better option.
Facebook seems to have become a site of birthday wishes and groups, the latter helpful if they’re well moderated – again a voluntary public service. New platforms at Threads, Mastodon, Bluesky and elsewhere are yet to mature, and may never mature. LinkedIn still distributes links freely but its proximity to people’s livelihoods keeps the typical post boringly sober.
For some time now, authors have been advised to build a following on a social media platform. It’s not obvious today which one you’d choose. I’d singled out Twitter but luck wasn’t with me. Informed suggestions are welcome as comment.