The true cost of “engagement as a metric” on social media

Last week, Washington Post reporters Naomi Nix and Sarah Ellison published an article titled “Following Elon Musk’s Lead, Big Tech Is Giving Up on Disinformation.” Facebook, YouTube and X have “abandoned their more aggressive efforts to police online hoaxes,” they write. Journalists call attention to how employees “are now being asked to spend more time figuring out how to minimally comply with a booming list of global regulations” rather than creating new ways to keep content trustworthy and free from abuse.

The negative effects of online abuse and misinformation on people are clear, so why do the bigger platforms seem to do the bare minimum to keep people safe and why do they seem indifferent towards finding solutions? It’s a fundamental flaw in the way social media platforms have operated from the very beginning: they believe that engagement is everything.

For more than 20 years, major social media platforms have been built around a fundamental revenue model: advertising and selling valuable user data. This approach has made the platforms’ goals simple: find users who will add and interact with content; keep them there at all costs; attract more users; and sell ads or data. Rinse and repeat.

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Psychologists at the University of Cambridge have shown that negative posts garner more engagement than those of a more benign nature. At the same time, advertisers are conditioned to look to the largest and most engaged communities as a way to get their messages to the greatest number of people. As an unintended consequence, platforms are often incentivized to look the other way when things get obnoxious: Anger, hate, and abuse fuel the engagement metrics desired by advertisers.

There is also evidence that the most “engaging” content is not necessarily the best for ad conversions, which are the main revenue driver for most social platforms. Consumer behavior studies conducted by the Association for Consumer Research and the Kellogg School of Management indicate that more positive environments and experiences are better factors in conversions and purchasing decisions. Better moods lead to better recall of information, in ads as well as content, and more careful consideration of new products and ideas.

Even if the evidence shows that this is the case, it’s hard to steer companies away from entrenched practices. Efforts to address harm and abuse have historically occurred on the fringes, pitting trust and safety teams at odds with platform leadership. It’s no secret that actions like account removals and discouragement of sensational content can have a dampening effect on the engagement numbers needed to grow revenue. Complying with global regulations like the EU’s Digital Service Act will, initially, only nominally help improve the consumer experience until there is a new organizing principle for platforms.

Efforts have been made in the past to look at metrics beyond engagement. Facebook, where I previously worked, explored a metric called Meaningful Social Interactions that prioritized posts from friends over simply viral ones. However, in response to the general decline in engagement, MSI was quickly brought back to the service of the old master: engagement. Facebook docs suggest the result will be a deepening of echo chambers.

There are signs that brands and advertisers are starting to question raw engagement as a focal point. X has lost half of its ad revenue and is projected to lose about $2 billion in ad revenue this year, in part because the platform has become “a place where people can post racist, sexist or otherwise harmful speech without much consequence.” ”, as reported by Shirin Ghaffary of Vox. (X does not appear to have responded to requests for comment on this matter.)

My hope is that the next generation of platforms will continue to drive this shift forward and highlight the business value of engagement quality over quantity. I started seeing this approach work firsthand on T2, a social media site I founded with a focus on security.

Hopefully more platforms will recognize that blindly focusing on engagement is not good for business. Brands also play their part in this game. For their part, marketers need to unlearn bad habits and broaden their thinking beyond just engagement numbers. Instead, it must be about the quality, not the quantity, of the engagement.

X cannot quickly eliminate rampant hate speech through regulatory checklist exercises, and attempts to do so will not set advertisers back. What’s worse, the wave of negative press adds to the rapid erosion of the company’s brand. Yes, Elon Musk should have seen the signs, but he’s not the only one blinded by the metrics of engagement. It’s time for everyone to change their thinking.

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