Home Thinking Aloud What Social Media Needs To Do To Better Pique Your Interest

What Social Media Needs To Do To Better Pique Your Interest


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by Russell Cowdrey is the CEO and co-founder of Plum

It’s Monday morning and you’re on the metro on your way to work. You scroll through your Facebook feed, and ‘like’ a picture your ex has posted of a dopey kitten. Do you really like cats? And do you want your feed to become filled with them? We have become a generation of ‘likers,’ flippantly clicking on every photo, meme, or shared article that catches our eye, regardless of whether it is a topic that really interests us.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, these behaviors tell social media algorithms that this is the content you really want to see. Using the social graph – who you follow, what you like, or comment on – social media platforms select the content they believe you will be interested in and more likely to interact with in the future. As such, leading platforms continue to promote the most viral content dictated by your digital social circle.

But many are working to change this. A number of interest driven networks offer an alternative, and a host of smaller sites are building smarter tools to gain deeper insights about you and what you actually like, showing the bigger guys how this can be done. So, what are the interest driven platforms doing, and what could this mean for the future of social media?

The News Feed As A Tool For Discovery.

Social networking sites are increasingly becoming the go-to place for people to discover what is happening in the world. According to Pew Research, 63 percent of Facebook and Twitter users visit these platforms to get updates on national events and issues. When it comes to breaking news, Twitter is the place to be, with 59 percent of users reportedly logging in to find out what is going on around them.

Yet the truth is that on the largest social networking sites, users only really ever see a small portion of the content that is available. In this way, social media algorithms act as gate-keepers to new discoveries and important information.

Instagram used to show every single post from a followed account in reverse chronology. Because of the volume of content, and the time it would take to look at it all, executives claim on average its users missed 70 percent of what appears in their feeds. It was, reportedly, in response to this that they tweaked the algorithm, now revealing posts “based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content.” This means it works in a similar way as Facebook and Twitter: it uses a person’s connections and actions on the site to select what is shown. The updated decisioning engine was met by Instagrammer fury, with a fear that any non-viral posts will now become buried under a slew of popular coffee-shop pictures and furry friends.

Indeed, this type of network model – curating content from your social circle and ranking the popularity of these posts – isn’t necessarily the best way to find those articles, quips, photos, or whatever it is you really like, and narrows the window for discovery. Just because your ex has a penchant for cute felines or kale-based health foods doesn’t mean you do too. So what happens when you reverse this – using your interests to gather information and make connections – and what social networks are doing this?

The Power Of The Interest Graph.

The interest graph is a representation of the relationship between people and things. In the digital world, this means any information connected to your online avatar that reveals what you might be interested in. This could be through the accounts you follow or like, but also the opinions you reveal, your browsing or search behavioral habits, or even personal demographic or location data.

Today, various platforms tap this data in different ways. While great emphasis has been put on the social aspect – who you know – in driving content discovery, this is only one aspect of the interest graph. Some of the largest social networks also explore other parts, using a range of tactics, some of which you may not even be aware of.

Twitter’s hashtags are an example of using “what” rather than “who” to find relevant content. This feature means users can search by specific terms to access tweets they might find interesting. However, this is secondary to Twitter’s social-driven content and it requires users to actively search the network to find those tweets that suit their interests.

Pinterest is a great example of a platform that uses your interests to build a personalized feed of content. It provides users with categories, such as Design or Education, with related topics in order to organize a growing network of over 30 billion Pins. Algorithms extract suitable Pins with features such as Related Pins, and Pinterest also assists users with finding Pins with features such as Guided Search.

These platforms connect people with the content that matches their interests, but they rely on user actions to curate this content. While this is a beginning, it is by no means perfect. Fear not, because a rise in new social media players are using a variety of information to connect people with people and content in a better way.

A More Intuitive Tool.

Flipboard’s personalized magazine curates content based on its interest graph – using topic tags and search behavior within the app. Users are not forced to publicly share with others the content they enjoy, but they still get to explore it.

Social networking app, Shout, uses a location-based model that connects users based on their location and their specified radius. Shout founders want users to share more, and believe proximity is the key to this. Users sign up with their phone number and can select the distance their post will be visible over – this could be anyone in a gig venue, your apartment building, or in a large city.

New capabilities that use your online browsing behaviors, use your location, and analyze your interests on a deeper level show how this is evolving. Soon, you might be able to access relevant tips on mountain-biking in Dallas without joining a group, see breaking research on an illness that might affect you without liking a page, or look for updates on the U.S. presidential campaign without showing up on friendswholiketrump.com — all within your news feed or timeline.

As algorithms that drive our discoveries continue to develop, our ‘likes’ will become less significant and the viral content will be replaced with stories and information you really want to see. By really understanding the content you are interested in, your news feed should start to look a little different… assuming that you stop clicking on every cappuccino and cat photo that passes you by. This means a better social media experience for all, and the best part is, you’ll barely have to lift a finger to find it.


Russell Cowdrey

Russell Cowdrey is the CEO and co-founder of Plum, which stands for People Like You and Me, a social media platform that aims to connect people around their passions and concerns.

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