Apr/May 2017 Reviews & Interviews

Resistance is futile

Thoughts by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! It was nothing that we haven't all experienced. I signed into my Facebook account one day to discover that a considerable amount of work I had done in order to arrange it for my needs had been removed. The app that provided the ability to create thematic groupings for the pages I'd "Liked" had been discontinued. I would no longer be able to load posts from those groups separately into my News Feed for a looksee. It was not replaced with another version of the feature that Facebook liked better and would tout as having been substituted for my improved experience. The whole idea of organizing and accessing pages by another method than following the Facebook algorithm's choices for me was discontinued. Undoubtedly in-house analysis had determined that the decisions of those such as myself were reducing advertising revenues below what their models assured them could be achieved.

So then, there was no "European Media" tab, any longer, to allow me to hop over now and again to see what was on the European mind. No "Museums" tab. I would see the pages in that category when the Facebook algorithm determined that one of them was more promising than other pages to result in an ad-click. "Science and Technology" gone. "Arts and Literature" gone. "Local Media" gone. "Sports" gone. Foreign Policy magazine would have to pay for their posts to show up in my feed, as "Sponsored Posts," in order to attract my attention. Literary journals would have to hope that I would strategically click a few ads while on their pages to beguile the algorithm into sending me back to their latest posts from time to time in hopes of more clicks.

It is by no means a Facebook phenomenon alone. Anyone who has closely watched the Google Search Engine over the last 20-or-so years knows how many "improvements" it has undergone from those low functioning days when it only showed pages ranked by traffic per unit time. Now, if I have recently visited a page, it and other similar pages mysteriously show up soon after on or near the coveted Page 1. If the subject of the page I've visited relates to a company that pays for Google advertising, it's paid advertising appears at the very top of Page 1.

I no longer can determine what pages are attracting the most readership. As far as Google was concerned, that information was only getting in my way. At the very least, it wasn't producing optimal profits. What if I want to read the information that has received the most traffic (apart from all other considerations)? Sorry, it is no longer useful in order for me to be the reader Google needs me to be. Besides, with all of Google's tinkering, page rank just ain't the indicator it used to be.

Of course, these are by no means the only major Internet players who have been radically redesigning their apps and algorithms to steer me toward the reading they need me to "choose" to do in order to enhance their bottom lines. Very much to the point, as well, over the past three years those algorithms have rapidly reduced a writer's ability to reach an audience without paying for advertising.

Long gone are the heady days of news stories highlighting the success of an online business that started out with only energy, grit, determination and a plan. Each platform has developed its advertising market and expects the kind of gratifying results that can only come from preventing access to its users by any other means. Your Facebook posts are shown to a tiny percentage of the users they used to reach. The tiny little thumbnail listing of your book under "Related Books" (or whatnot), at the online store, no longer appears with the same frequency. Publishers who purchase services are shown higher on the search page for your product keywords. Your product page still exists but traffic to it pretty much does not.

I've actually put tiny amounts toward Facebook advertising. To participate at all required a good deal of reading, including a User's Agreement," of course, which absolved the company from all legal liability for anything whatsoever that might happen or not happen as a result of my becoming an advertiser.

The quality of the non-legal text was not impressive and I had to wander around community discussion boards in order to fill in the blanks on one subject and another. In line with all such discussion board features supporting commercial products and services, Facebook is not going to spend money on experts or moderators. That is avoidable labor cost. Disclaimers require almost no man-hours. The partners/customers would provide their own needs as best they could. It was part of the reading experience to decipher the misspelled, irregularly punctuated text and to gauge quality of the content as best one could.

Like all major operators nowadays, Facebook does not have a fixed price for advertising. Such would not optimize profits. Instead there is an ongoing auction to establish the going price at any given time. The smallest players are encouraged to trust that the platform will treat them fairly and not to try to participate directly in the auction. "Fairly" presumably amounts to treating them equally with all other members of their advertising cohort: tiny independent players with neither leverage nor the money to pursue legal recourse. The price to them per ad unit is what it is. Quantity discounts and/or otherwise optimized rates belong to another class of participant.

There seemed nothing to profit from reading information on how advertising auctions work. I knew enough to know it would do me little or no good unless I committed to many hours of reading on the subject. Even then, my expertise, such as it might as a result be, would come to exactly the same result and exactly the same lack of leverage to correct whatever injustices I might feel I had suffered.

So then, it has grown progressively more difficult to read what I wish and to get what I write in front of a potential audience. In order to accomplish either of these I have to make a concerted effort. That entails the loss of considerable time and convenience. The pressures are clearly designed to overcome my personal will and replace it with that of whoever owns the platform I'm on at a given moment.

Computer algorithms are unceasing. And it's nothing personal with them. Nor is it with those who design and tweak them. The bottom line of all that highly complex effort is nothing beyond revenues. Even avoiding offensive or illegal material is a matter of avoiding legal costs and keeping the audience pleased and wanting more. The old saw continues to rule the day: Capitalism is an inherently self-correcting system. Cease to resist and it will provide you the reading most fitted to your needs and desires. You'll hardly even know it is happening.

As for persons such as myself, even being throwbacks to a dying social construct the algorithms will still unceasingly seek a pattern by which they may monetize us. Not everything will go behind a paywall. There will be plenty for us to enjoy in spite of our futile, perverse preference for having preferences that are not subject to algorithms.

Most of us will let go our grasp and join the flow. It is only a matter of time. Who wants to live a life in which everything is twice as hard? Resistance is futile. We will be assimilated.


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