Doctor SpinDigital FirstMonitoring, Algorithms & DataThe Silent Switch — How Algorithms Have Changed

The Silent Switch — How Algorithms Have Changed

How algorithms are replacing substance with sensationalism.

How is the Silent Switch impacting your content?

As a PR adviser since 2005 and a digital strategist since 2007, I’ve seen the Silent Switch take over — one seamless iteration after another.

In this blog article, I explain how social media algorithms silently have been centralised into a series of global Pavlovian experiments.

As PR- and communications professionals, we should all be aware of what has happened — and what’s happening still.

Let’s dive right in:

Table of Contents

    Having Subscribers is Becoming Less and Less Important

    Like many others interested in photography, I subscribe to the Canadian content creator Peter McKinnon on YouTube. I’m not alone — as I’m writing this, 5,55 million subscribers are following McKinnon.

    5,55 million is a respectable audience; millions of YouTube users have actively chosen to follow McKinnon’s future updates.

    Peter McKinnon
    Why won’t YouTube show all of Peter McKinnon’s videos to his subscribers?

    Still, it’s not uncommon for McKinnon’s regular videos to acquire only a few hundred thousand views.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that a few hundred thousand views are something to sneeze at. And I’m not saying we should feel sorry for online mega influencers, either.

    I’m asking why acquiring social media subscribers, fans, and followers seems less significant today. After all, followers are what drive most content creators to social media in the first place.

    A few hundred thousand views is a lot — but it’s not 5,55 million. And it’s reasonable to assume that 5,55 million subscribers haven’t actively decided against watching McKinnon’s video. The video just hasn’t been suggested to them.

    As follows:

    Earning many subscribers, fans, and followers used to matter a lot, but nowadays, it matters less.

    Another way of putting it: Although McKinnon has 5,55 million YouTube subscribers, it doesn’t mean his videos have that kind of reach. Something else is at play here.

    The Silent Switch — The Death of Building Trust Over Time

    So, why have Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many other social networks, gone through so much trouble to render subscribers, fans, and followers less valuable to content creators?

    Here’s a historical explanation:

    In the early days of social networks, feeds relied on network-based distribution — the more central the network node, the greater the reach.

    Clean and classy. If you wanted a higher reach, you had to earn an audience by establishing trust over a more extended period of time.

    Today, other types of selection criteria are dominating our social media feeds. Reach is rewarded not to content creator authority but to individual pieces of content based on their single performance.

    Wait, What? Network- vs Algorithmic Distribution

    We have slowly moved away from network distribution based on content creator authority to algorithmic distribution based on single content performance.

    Instead of showing users content based on who they’ve decided to follow, algorithms expose audiences to single pieces of content based on standardised content tests.

    Network Effects - The Silent Switch
    The model shows two different paradigms of distribution and influence.

    Alas, the YouTube algorithm won’t show Peter McKinnon’s content to all of his 5,55 million subscribers.

    Instead, YouTube shows a new McKinnon video to a small statistical subset of users. If the video passes the small first test, the video is then shown to a slightly larger statistical subset.

    And so on.

    The video could potentially stop at 200,000 views — or climb to 2 billion views. It depends on that single piece of content, not how many followers the content creator has amassed. McKinnon’s 5,55 million subscribers are simply not as significant in this new context.

    Okay, so what?

    Doesn’t a successful vlogger like McKinnon already enjoy a massive reach at his fingertips? Aren’t powerful online influencers already making enough money?

    Here, we’re entering into controversial territory:

    Why Tech Giants Are Switching Away

    There are three main reasons social media tech giants move from network distribution to algorithmic distribution:

    1. There’s a clash of desired outcomes. Network distribution doesn’t maximise the type of engagement (i.e. ad clicks and exposure) social media tech giants seek to promote.

    Online audiences seek to distribute their trust sparingly and follow creators who will psychologically emphasise how they see themselves — they don’t follow content creators to increase their own spending or ad exposure.

    2. Advanced server-side computation is expensive. The complexity of social media algorithms is typically overstated; the media is constantly buzzing about machine learning, neural networks, and artificial intelligence.

    The problem, however, is that providing advanced server-side calculations on user behaviour in real-time is … expensive.

    And apart from being expensive, this type of advanced analytics is likely to be GDPR invasive and almost impossible to get right due to the complexity of human psychology.

    3. Control is power; power is money. The algorithmic distribution gives the social network more control over engagement. As a consequence, this removes control from both audiences and content creators.

    This Is the Money Web

    I love the idea of the social web. I love the idea of a democratic and neutral space where everyone has a voice, communities can form unbound by geographical constraints, and everyone is connected.

    “Here comes everybody,” Clay Shirky wrote.

    Two decades ago, the network-based Hippie Web (2005-2015) had a burgeoning blogosphere and lively forums where anyone discussed ideas and joined together in communities around causes and interests.

    Social media optimists cited The Cluetrain Manifesto and fought for net neutrality. Sharing was caring.

    One World One Web
    Credit to Paul Downey for this beautiful illustration.

    The widespread notion was that information wanted to be free, an ideology spearheaded by open-source enthusiasts. We saw the advent of Napster and The Pirate Bay.

    It was fun, but it had to end at some point.
    We weren’t making enough money, frankly.

    Enter the Money Web (2016-present).

    Today, successful influencers can earn a full-time living as online content creators. Not only that — they can get rich. We have a new and growing creative class of entertainers and educators.

    The digital economy is growing, and we reward those who can attract people’s attention. Monetisation allows content creators to go full-time, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Having algorithms designed to get people to click ads is essential.

    But the algorithm owners are setting the stage, not the creatives. Content must drive clicks, and creators must produce content that drives those clicks.

    Sensationalism and Winner-Takes-All

    The Silent Switch from network-based to algorithm-based distribution is changing the game for everyone. Especially for us PR professionals.

    For those of us who create online content on behalf of an organisation, the effects of the Silent Switch can be devastating.

    On the “classic” pre-money social web, where earning subscribers, fans, and followers, even not-so-spectacular corporate content found its way to reasonable audience sizes:

    Network-Distribution - The Silent Switch
    Once upon a time, we could earn trust and be influential based on that trust.

    But on today’s Money Web, where algorithmic distribution disregards earning trust over earning clicks, sensationalism prevails in a winner-takes-all scenario:

    Algorithm-Distribution - The Silent Switch
    Today, it’s “go big or go home”.

    In a way, the playing field today is levelled. As long as you’re prepared to invest heavily in the risky business of creating the type of sensational content that ultimately drives ads, that is.

    Theoretically, algorithmic distribution should produce better content through competition.

    But what constitutes “better?”

    The problem under this new paradigm is fundamental — loyalty and trust are non-rewarded behaviours.

    A Global Pavlovian Experiment on Humans

    I hear many people discussing online influencers. There’s a fascinating — and often provoking! — allure to them.

    The provocation is apparent:

    Many successful content creators produce notable earnings by churning out sensational content.

    In a sense, the phenomenon is not novel: Neil Postman warned us that we might be amusing ourselves to death. And that was back in 1985!

    Also, you don’t need to be an Ayn Rand ideologist to suggest that private companies strive for profits. No one is forcing Peter McKinnon and other video creators to play by YouTube’s rules, right?

    But as PR professionals, we must adapt and play by these new rules. We have no other choice. Digital is way too prominent to be ignored:

    Top Social Networks
    Top social networks via Statista.com.

    Tech giants have asked their audiences to permit them to run large-scale Pavlovian experiments on us. And they have given it to them.

    It’s no coincidence that terms of services are lengthy and hard-to-read disclaimer documents designed for scrolling past while their main content is dopamine-inducing click baits.

    Love it, hate it. If you’re a PR professional, it doesn’t matter.
    If the playbook is changing, so must we.

    Those Who Crush the Algorithm

    Content that attracts instantaneous momentum and makes a big splash throughout each iterative testing series will outperform other content types.

    As for YouTube, this is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the record-breaking MrBeast:

    The fact that MrBeast has millions of followers on YouTube is not fundamental for his continuous success — his style of extravagant and over-the-top videos would go viral regardless of which account posted them. 1I’ve studied several in-depth interviews with MrBeast, and it’s clear that he’s a brilliant content creator that has been publishing videos on YouTube for a long time before his … Continue reading

    MrBeast - Largest Pizza - Thumbnail
    “Are you not entertained?”

    Here’s the point: Algorithmic distribution doesn’t mean content creators can’t reach a vast audience. Innovative creators, like MrBeast, will find ways to negotiate the algorithms and go viral repeatedly.

    While we can appreciate MrBeast’s videos as welcome distractions, as pure dopamine-infused entertainment for the masses, we might be missing out on content created by individuals and organisations that could’ve reached their already-earned subscribers, fans, and followers.

    Today, social media need user-generated content more than ever. But they don’t need mediocre corporate content. They’d much rather have our budgets.

    For PR, this is rough but not unfair.

    Why PR Professionals Must Adapt

    Many organisations have spent serious resources attracting subscribers, fans, and followers on social media. But the value of having subscribers, fans, and followers is quickly eroding.

    As PR professionals, we must be rational.

    We should compare the current situation with our long-standing relationship with traditional news media. Traditional news media is powerful but imperfect, so PR professionals must manage the media. The same goes for social media.

    It’s not our place as professional communicators to tell journalists how to do their jobs, just as it isn’t our place to tell tech giants or content creators how to do their business.

    Our job as PR professionals is to help organisations navigate the complexity of the modern media landscape.

    The Silent Switch has profound and severe implications for our society. But our job as PR professionals isn’t to fix any of these problems; our job is to help organisations communicate efficiently in times of change.

    Our job is to identify significant changes, where the Silent Switch is one such fundamental change, and find ways to improve organisational communication.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

    FOOTNOTES
    FOOTNOTES
    1 I’ve studied several in-depth interviews with MrBeast, and it’s clear that he’s a brilliant content creator that has been publishing videos on YouTube for a long time before his public breakthrough.

    .

    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
    Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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