Subscribe, like, share: visibility in the age of algorithms

Oscar Wilde wrote, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Wilde died more than 120 years ago, but those words could be a mantra for today’s social media content creators, whose digital relevance – in the form of “likes,” “favorites” and “shares” – is often dependent on factors well beyond their control, including subtle shifts in platform algorithms that help steer audiences toward certain content.

Algorithm vagaries are just one of several challenges social media content creators face, according to Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Duffy is senior author of “The Nested Precarities of Creative Labor on Social Media,” which published June 2 in Social Media & Society. Her co-authors are Annika Pinch ’20, currently a doctoral student at Northwestern University; Shruti Sannon, Ph.D. ’21, now a postdoctoral researcher at Drexel University; and Megan Sawey, a doctoral student in the field of communication.

The gist of their work: Influencing millions of people and being paid handsomely for it is not as easy as it looks.

“I think [our research] is a cautionary tale for aspiring creators as well as the broader public,” Duffy said of the paper. “The people hoping to work as full-time YouTubers, Instagrammers, and TikTokers are led to believe it’s easy and democratic. I disagree: If you look at who makes it as an influencer, for instance, they are not all that dissimilar to traditional celebrity exemplars, with a few exceptions. Social media celebrity remains lopsided.

“And the wider public doesn’t fully appreciate how much time, energy and labor is required to build and maintain a social media career,” she said. In addition to the time-intensive nature of content creation and promotion, Duffy said, “we were struck by how much energy people devoted to going on Reddit, or participating in Facebook communities, to figure out how to make sense of platforms’ so-called ‘black-boxed’ algorithms.”

Duffy and her collaborators interviewed 30 aspiring and professional content creators on a range of social media platforms – including Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest and Twitter – to learn about their experiences within and across platforms, including their pursuit of visibility and their understanding of the forces at play in their  quest for metrics success.

In general, study participants all spoke the same language: They wished to have their content “seen,” to “build an audience” and “get attention,” to craft “posts that get more traction” and, in terms of metrics, to “do well.”

Relying on public sentiment and its taste for the flavor of the week is by no means a 21st-century phenomenon. Content creators have for decades relied on opinion research – be it Nielsen ratings or newspaper subscription figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation – to help guide creative decision-making.

But nowadays, Duffy said, the science of determining what an audience likes and wants comes with a new twist: The tenuous nature of the platforms themselves.

“The evolution of these platform companies is different from earlier eras,” she said. “If you were a musician, or a journalist or a movie producer, maybe you didn’t really know what would do well [among audiences] so there’s always been a level of uncertainty. But you knew that the industry that employed you was going to be there.

“These [influencers and creators], they don’t know if Instagram is going to be there when they wake up,” she said. “And they don’t know if TikTok is going to be banned the next day in the U.S. It’s a much more accelerated, intensified form of precarity in the era of Google and Facebook.”

Duffy and her collaborators view the “nested” precarities as akin to a Russian matryoshka doll, with the outermost doll being capitalism itself, followed by the markets, the platform ecology and algorithms as the innermost doll. “One shapes the other,” she said.

The promise of being seen, and talked about, is what drives many to the world of social media influencing. But it’s not all that it appears, Duffy said.

“Despite the romanticism of social media creative careers, they are structured by various levels of precarity,” she said. “Some of these precarities well predate the rise of social media, but one of the most novel forms is the precarity of these algorithmic systems.”

Those systems reward some creators, while punishing others. In either case, she concluded: “Creators have no control and, ultimately, no recourse.”

The Cornell Center for Social Sciences provided funding for this project.

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Gillian Smith