Obsessing Over Algorithms is a Waste of Time


The other day, word went around that both Facebook and Instagram are changing their algorithms. Yet again. (Of course, since they’re now the same company, it’s not surprising.) The new changes are supposed to make it easier to see content posted by friends, but it will make it much more difficult for authors and anyone else who runs a business to have their posts seen by the multitudes.

While I understand that change is necessary to stop spam, Russian hacking, and other forms system-gaming, it does make it difficult to do any sort of promotion. That’s why I’m glad I haven’t invested all of my time and effort into social media. I knew from the beginning that placing all of my eggs into a basket controlled by someone else was asking to have my eggs broken. Instead, I’ve funneled most of my time and money into my website, which is real estate that I alone control.

And yet… Despite the ebb and flow of the social media landscape, there seem to be a lot of authors who rely on social media for everything. The new changes have sent them into a panic. (It’s the same panic that happens every few months when changes are announced.) Suddenly my feeds are full of authors and other business owners desperately posting things like:

“Like if you can see this!”

“I need to adjust my feed for the new algorithm, so please like this post!”

“Sharing will help me be seen, so please share and comment!”

It’s annoying, to say the least.

Social media isn’t the only place that routinely changes its algorithms. Amazon is another notable offender. It seems like every other week Amazon changes what “counts” as a review, or who can be a legitimate reviewer. They change how your books are promoted on their site based on some formula no one can ever figure out. And every change leads to a round of authors posting panicked pleas for help.

“Don’t review my book if you know me IRL!”

“How do I separate my social media from Amazon so they don’t know who I know?”

“Can you downvote (or upvote) this review to save me!”

Again. Annoying.

I will not deny that this bot-driven world is problematic for authors. When there’s no room for human input, humanity is removed from the picture. As is common sense. When everything is reduced to a numbers game, there’s no room for people to express true opinions or to discover things organically. Authors and other business owners either meet the numbers and the mystery criteria or you don’t. Of course, when you don’t even know what numbers you’re trying to match (and the numbers keep changing) or which criteria are given weight, it’s a game that you, as an author or small business owner, can never hope to win.

And that’s the problem.

We’re all playing a game we cannot win.

Knowing that is actually kind of freeing, actually. It shouldn’t be a cause for panic. When you know you cannot win, when you know the game is rigged against you (and if it’s not today, the knowledge that it likely will be later should give you pause), it’s much easier to let it go.

When I see authors and others panicked and obsessively chasing these unknown algorithms, I want to scream at them to stop. You’re wasting your time and mental energy. (And if you’re pouring money into ads that no one ever sees, or promoting your posts, you’re wasting money, as well.) You don’t control any of it. Sure, posting, “Like this post!” or “Save me by sharing this post,” over and over may make you feel like you have some control or agency, but you really don’t. Because you know what? Those very pleas will be the next thing to attract the bots and those actions will be curtailed.

Let me say it again: In the world of social media, you have no control. The sites control everything and everything they do is for money. So if you cannot offer them a way to make money, your content is essentially irrelevant, no matter how sparkling and wonderful it may be.

Obsessing over something over which you have no control is a waste of time. Yes, authors and others have to promote and market, but we also have to live life. If you’re spending time chasing this stuff and fretting over what number you have to chase today, you’re missing out on life.

So what’s the solution? Pour your energy into the things you do control. You have a website, right? Spend your time making that great. Post original content there, maybe give away free samples of your work, and encourage people to visit and comment there and not on your social media profiles. Maybe you can do a podcast, or host your weekly chat video. Create an engaging website that’s informative and entertaining and bring people to you.

There are plugins for polls, giveaways, and other engaging content. Post your reviews and testimonials so people can find out how great you are. You don’t have to rely on social media as the place to host those sorts of things.

You can also try a newsletter, if having a way to quickly contact fans is important to you. (I’m still not sold on the benefits of newsletters, but some people love them.) You can also add discussion forums to your site if you want to create a gathering place for fans that’s away from Facebook. Try some offline things, as well. There are appearances at libraries or bookstores, scavenger hunts for books in your local area, and other crazy ideas. If you have fans in other areas, perhaps you can enlist their help to set up some things in their area.

Social media is not the only way to engage with fans or get people to notice your work. And the more and more social media becomes controlled by bots with no soul, the less and less I think you should rely upon it.

Focus on your writing. We all know that creating more work is the best way to increase visibility, so spend your time actually writing instead of posting, “Like me,” all the time. Create more work. Create different work. Try new things. If you want to draw people in, give away samples on your website. Your writing (or your widget or whatever product your small business creates) is the one thing you control in all of this madness. Spend your time making it great and eventually people will find you.

In my article on controlling your own website, I noted that social media is good for disposable content, and this is truer than ever today. Don’t waste your time posting your money maker content there. Post memes or announcements, sure, but keep the good stuff for the site you control: Your own. And make sure your social media profiles have links to your website. If you want to drive people there, you must give them the roadmap.

It’s not worth wasting hours and hours trying to outwit bots and algorithms because you cannot win. Post your fluffy stuff on social media and forget it. The social media gods will do what they’re gonna do and you can’t worry about it or you’ll make yourself crazy. Pour your efforts into your own work, your website, and your offline presence. Control what you can, ignore what you cannot.

(Note that I retain some hope Amazon and social media might one day operate on a human scale and take actual living, breathing beings into account, but I’m not optimistic. Everything I’ve seen so far indicates that the bots are here to stay and the only way to “win” this game is not to play, or at least to play on such a superficial level that you do not tie your success and self-worth to these sites.)

(Photo courtesy of Boskampi)

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