As leaks of internal reports from Facebook and Instagram in recent months have made even more obvious, the processes whereby social media sites algorithmically determine the content in users’ feeds can have a tremendous impact on both the nature of content consumed and users’ experience with the site. In the same way that editorial decisions about what stories to publish and how to promote them allow traditional media outlets to influence the creation of narratives, newsfeed algorithms also play a powerful role in shaping the framing of major topics in the news. Newsfeed algorithms, or at the very least the humans who develop them, absolutely have the potential to influence what everybody knows everybody knows about our world.
Usually this influence is hidden, even if its effects are plain. In some cases, however, the desire to frame a topic in a certain way (and to drive engagement, of course) is too important to leave to the computers. For this reason, most social media sites have also developed somewhat more curated expressions of what users should be reading. On Twitter, that feature takes a few forms. One of them is the “What’s happening” sidebar, where trends the site’s algorithms think might drive engagement for a user of your profile are elevated alongside topics selected and escalated with human intervention, presumably with the same engagement aim in mind.
Twitter users who logged in from late last evening until this morning would very likely have seen the below entry as a top “What’s happening” update.
If it looks like a familiar kind of post, that’s because it is. But this one is a little bit different. You see, Parag Agrawal is the CEO of Twitter itself, installed this week following the abrupt departure of founder and unabomber-chic aficionado Jack Dorsey. This “What’s Happening” entry was manually placed at the top of a list of trending topics for users that Twitter felt needed to know how to think about some recent social media activity about Mr. Agrawal.
What’s the backdrop to all that activity? Agrawal did a mildly dumb tweet about eleven years ago.
The tweet is obviously a quotation from something, even if you didn’t know that it was plucked straight out of The Daily Show’s rich archives of weaponized smugness. Still, it was red meat for those who see Twitter as a censorious, left-leaning institution that overlooks the foibles of friendlies on Team Blue and is otherwise a blight on American society. (Which it is.) The resulting furor over the unearthed social media post was, in turn, red meat for those who found it deliciously ironic that the Team Red folks bringing up the old tweets were also those so often railing about cancel culture. (Which they are.)
It doesn’t really matter that both arguments are mostly correct or that everyone looks a bit foolish here. The rest of our present political dialogue basically boils down to different flavors of hypocrisy porn, anyway; this just happens to be the flavor of hypocrisy porn the studio is providing today.
So ignore all that.
Instead, look at the craftsmanship at play in the What’s Happening blurb above. Dearest news consumer, you need to know that it was an old tweet. You need to know that it was a quotation. You need to know that it was satirizing stereotypes. You need to know that it isn’t us at Twitter saying this – it was Journalists. You need to know that all of that isn’t an opinion. After all, they are reporting it.
Look, the tweet was dumb. Pretending that Agrawal’s tweet was scarring and hateful to anyone not feigning hurt to pick a fight on the internet was dumber. Using a “journalists say” construction as if this were a good faith synopsis of a news event bouncing around social media as opposed to a literal PR campaign was dumber still. Doing a bullet point rundown of what various news outlets are reporting in context of a heading entitled “What you need to know” as opposed to calling this the press release it was may have been the dumbest of all.
Still, it isn’t as if powerful media missionaries using their platforms to defend themselves and the interests of their employees when THEY are the news is new. It happens all the time. It’s happening right this minute at CNN with the Brothers Cuomo.
But there’s something different at work here from the usual media machinations, and it’s worth spending a moment thinking about.
All information we encounter we consume at some layer of abstraction. Our memory or experience of an event is an abstraction of the event, a noisy substitute for the thing itself that is immediately loaded with our interpretations, biases and tendencies toward the recognition of certain patterns. The story we tell is an abstraction of our experience, colored by the features we found most important, the details we felt most inclined to include and leave out, by the meaning and emotional response we hoped others might derive from it. Content is a story abstracted by a mass medium into a thing of meaning, a thing which must be contextualized, a thing which serves the political, social and commercial aims of its publisher.
Publicly shared content is not just a delivery mechanism – it is an abstraction of content.
That is, what we consume on social media is not just the words and sentences in the article we clicked on. The content we consume on social media includes the process whereby that content was presented and framed to us. It is every bit as much about the algorithm that told us it was an Important Thing or the curator who told us What We Need to Know about it.
A Marshall McLuhan famously said in his interview with Playboy Magazine (SFW link), “It is the medium itself that is the message, not the content.”
It isn’t a game of a telephone, either. Each layer of abstraction doesn’t just introduce another layer of noise to the signal of “what really happened.” It forces us to parse through multiple layers of why someone shared something, why an outlet chose to suggest it as the next story to read, why its arguments told us that certain things mattered and ignored certain other things, and why it was framed by someone quoted in the piece as being about some broader idea or topic
If you read anything about Parag Agrawal’s old tweets today – and I hope you were spared at least until I did the “Aw, that’s gross, look” routine – you did not consume information. You almost certainly did not consume news. You consumed a curated publicly shared abstraction of curated reactions to curated reactions to curated reactions to curated reactions to an eleven-year old reaction to a mediocre social commentary bit on The Daily Show.
When we ask ourselves “Why am I reading this now,” we must recognize an implicit second part to the question:
Why am I being nudged to read this on social media now?