Olu Online

Bump, boost

This blog is mostly musings on whether mass social media can ever actually be good and fun for everyone who uses it, and if so, how we can make it better. By mass social media I mean public, huge sites as opposed to private or invitation only forums and websites.

For as long as there have been mass social media feeds, people have wanted to show that some things deserve more attention than a simple upvote or like can show. This is a microcosm that allows us to think about a lot of the aspects of what makes mass social media fun and terrible at the same time.

Bumping content is a way to help make sure a post stays near the top of a social media feed, by adding a comment that often just says 'bump!', for the sole purpose of giving the bumped post more attention. Comments are engagement regardless of content on most mass social media sites, so this helps make sure more people see a post. Bumping feels very democratic. On the other hand, it is annoying to be excited to see a comment or reply and instead seeing a few bumps on your post. In theory, bumps are always a sign of people's engagement, or at least a hope that the original poster will get an answer to a query or more eyes on something they've produced. In reality, people make bots to bump posts, of course, and I assume they only grow more sophisticated and 'person-like' in engagement with time and tweaking. The presence of bots makes bumping harder to trust, but it is still probably preferable to the randomness of an algorithmic boost to your post.

Boosting is the other time-honoured way of influencing who sees a post, by reposting/retweeting/etc the post into your own timeline with attribution or using the platforms' built in methods for doing so. There are two main issues with boosting as it currently stands, aside from the aforementioned bot problem. Attribution issues, either by purposely removing creator credits or sharing posts of unknown origin, mean people can garner credit for things they did not create and even become more popular for posting them than the original creator. There is also the inability to stop or prevent people from boosting and/or reposting your work through anything other than a plea not to on most sites.

Bumping and boosting work best on a chronological, following-only style feed, where things are presented to the user in reverse order from when they were posted, with no other manipulation. Chronological feeds make mass social media less 'sticky' — aka people spend less time scrolling on these apps and websites — probably by making it more boring. Something is happening at the time you check the app or website or something is not, and your feed isn't going to pull from many days ago or people you don't follow to be more entertaining.

Algorithmic feeds take data from a wide array of sources and models, and using these weights and any other things they wish to inject, e.g. should paying users be shown more? How frequently should we show this user ads? This makes bumps and boosts less effective unless they are done en masse, and often make it difficult to impossible to work out why a certain post is shown to a user at a certain time. Algorithmic feeds reflect the biases of their creators and the world in general. I'm personally torn on whether algorithmic feeds are bad 'by design' and should never be used. Are there are times when a well deployed algorithmic flourish could make the experience much better for the people using it?

If mass social media sites weren't owned by big companies, there'd be less incentive for algorithmic feeds of the kinds that currently exist. Current feeds mostly measure their success by how long a user stays engaged with the app or website and thus sees more ads. This is rather than any other measure, such as enjoyment, or getting to do whatever it was they came into the app to do, or myriad other measures. Different measures would mean different roads to success; maybe chasing the least time spent on the app, maybe enjoyment of their time there, maybe not tracking user engagement or enjoyment or whatever at all.

Are our current ways of exposing content even fair? Should they be? Fairness here is a concept I keep coming back to; learning anecdotally that most Twitter/X users were not having a good time on the site really shocked me, and since it's the top 10% of people doing over 90% of the posting, on that site I guess I get why. It's a bit less huge a dip on other sites like Instagram, but I wonder how much following actually influences the experience on things like Instagram, where the algorithm is king. I know on TikTok generally followings are lower, but you still may get a lot of attention on a post if it catches the eye of the algorithm, for better or worse.

In general, way more questions than conclusions about social media this time, thanks for reading.

This piece is part of my attempt at Alphabet Superset, a 6 month creative challenge.