I remember when Facebook descended into my life. All of my friends were ditching MySpace, the largest social networking site back then, and flocking to the book of faces, drunken affairs, relationship statuses, psychological experiments, and your friends from elementary school. I didn’t think much of Mr. Zuckerberg’s project, beyond it being the new popular website in a long line of websites that would hopefully expand the potential of “social media” and serve us, the public, rather than special interests.
These days, however, I try to avoid social media as much as possible (for someone who works in digital marketing). When I do browse the feeds, I use a bunch of browser add-ons to get rid of the ads, videos, endless scrolling, trends, artificially amplified accounts, and other content that is seeking my “engagement” through manipulative design.
Why am I skeptical of social media companies? While I can’t speak for others, my perception of them changed dramatically after I saw how the “sausage is made” from the production side of things. Managing various social media accounts for the past decade has shown me what any social media “guru” would likely confirm—organizations that don’t regularly invest in those platforms (through ads and other paid amplification) are bound to be less visible and reach less people than those that invest in Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s services.
In Facebook’s case, limiting organizations’ reach on its “News Feed” was a gradual and intentional process. According to the company, the tweak aimed to emphasize posts from users’ friends and family over news sources. “In January 2018, we announced that we’re going to shift ranking to make News Feed more about connecting with people and less about consuming media in isolation,” Facebook wrote on their website. Regardless of FB’s justifications, this change decreased organizations’ “organic reach,” which meant that page administrators would have to spend even more money to reach their “followers.”
Twitter is less ambiguous about the way it works, listing in its Help Center that “when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow.” To top it off, Twitter’s account verification process has been “on hold” for several years.
These grim lessons in modern digital marketing are perfectly understood by small nonprofits, independent organizations, and commentators who don’t have the resources (staff time, social media management software, ad budget, etc.) to regularly reach their followers on social media. It is as if there are two platforms—one for those who invest in social media companies’ services and partnerships, and another for the rest of us who consume information on social media, despite the fact that prolonged use of it compromises our well-being. Facebook’s own studies and ex-employees point to the fact that using the platform is bad for users’ mental health. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” a former vice-president of “user growth” said in 2017.
As massive corporations and their marketing agencies perpetuate this unequal playing field, the guidelines set by known and unknown technocrats ensure that unless one puts money behind their content, it won’t even reach most of their so-called followers. This pay-to-play model drags the public deeper into the esoteric and self-referential world of online personalities where anything goes for the right price.
As I became disillusioned with the role of social media in our society, I started to write about my experience of working in digital marketing. My articles quickly turned into guides on how to avoid social media’s worst qualities. This journey into the dark side of social media led me to discover journalists and tech activists who have been on the front lines of exposing the horrific work conditions of Facebook’s content moderators, behind-the-scenes partnerships that wheel and deal our private data with companies such as Netflix and Spotify, and the lack of integrity that has come to define the social media blob and its high-level executives.
At that point, I realized that I could help reform those companies (a prospect that seems unlikely to me), or work on projects that would intentionally cut out social media’s toxicity and profit motives from the equation.
This realization is what inspired Progressive Speaker (PS)—a minimalist, free-to-use website that provides space for progressive speakers and commentators outside of social and corporate media.
A Platform That Works For … Progressives?
The idea of making it easy to discover and book progressive speakers was suggested to me by someone who had read my article on the growing influence of right-wing youth organizations in the U.S. While there are similar efforts on the Left, few places outside of social media provide a platform where progressives are equally represented. How would such a platform operate?
We agreed that following the model of a traditional speaker’s bureau—which usually pockets 20% to 30% of speaking fees—doesn’t make sense, given the rigged playing field for progressives in the U.S. For the most part, these aren’t individuals who can rely on trust funds and wealthy relatives for their marketing operations; they are writers, analysts, comedians, academics, and generally working class people who are fighting enemies with unlimited resources. Therefore, it made sense that the speakers featured on Progressive Speaker would keep 100% of any potential speaking fees.
At that point, I realized that volunteering to work on such a platform would be worth it, even if it served primarily as an experiment to make progressive ideas more accessible to the public. Since my professional work revolves around social media, I had a rough idea of how the website can be designed to stay true to its mission of being unapologetically progressive.
Progressive Speaker doesn’t require speakers—or users—to create an account or provide any personal data. There are no feeds, ads, trends, log-in walls, followers, blue checks, messengers, game streaming, and birthday alerts. To update the content on their page (of which they have full control), commentators can just email email@example.com.
These are simple design decisions, but they are crucial in creating a digital experience that puts our collective health and attention above profit. In other words, I’ve tried to strip PS of everything that makes our online experience suck and focus solely on amplifying progressives and their work.
To my encouragement, many of the commentators I contacted joined Progressive Speaker and are enthusiastic about its mission. PS currently features nine speakers who work in the spheres of journalism, academia, activism, art, podcasting, and comedy. The growing list will be shared with colleges, advocacy groups, media organizations, and anyone looking for insightful commentary and bold visions for our future. (If you know someone who would be interested in joining Progressive Speaker, please share this article with them or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Limiting Our Dependence On The Feeds
While building PS is a relatively straightforward process, explaining why it needs to exist requires us to examine how corporations influence mass media, including social media.
It doesn’t take much to notice the increasingly top-down nature of the Social Media Enterprise. Being a digital “influencer” has become an end of itself—often driven by a selfish desire for material gains and digital clout, rather than a way to inform the public. Twitter in particular (where 10% of users generate 80% of all tweets) has turned into a dissemination service for corporate news networks, rather than anything resembling a public square.
Social media companies and their executives not only facilitate our digital dialogue, but also shape the “political communication of electoral campaigns in the United States,” through “marketing, advertising revenue, and relationship-building in the service of lobbying efforts” (Kreiss & McGreggor, 2018). To use the most palpable example, we now know that Facebook, Twitter, and Google all had staff embedded in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Should we accept the ways in which technology firms collaborate with politicians and corporations? Of course not, but that’s easier said than done as so many of us have developed institutional and personal dependencies and addictions to these manipulation machines. By critiquing social media’s corrupt communication model and creating alternative digital experiences, we escape its paradigm and take control of how we perceive our reality.
Breaking through social media’s illusion of expression is tough—mostly because selling that illusion to the average user is what those companies do best (and they’ve been doing it for more than a decade). As it turns out, however, not all accounts are made equal. For example, you can “follow” and “like” whoever you want, but there’s no guarantee you will see their content in your feed. You can block and mute artificially boosted accounts, but new ones will find their way into your “Home” page, simply because platforms deem their content to be “popular.”
This subtle control of what enters and exits your “feed” significantly undercuts those platforms’ primary business pitch to the public. If you are not guaranteed to see the content you explicitly chose to follow, what’s the point of even being on those platforms? Speaking of which, if you are on social media to get your news (in 2018, one-in-five adults said they often get news on social media), you will most likely be in a cycle of being triggered, blocking, muting, and “unfollowing” other accounts. To the average social media user, this experience feels more like a voyeuristic journey into the world of digital manipulation, rather than the next level of online communication.
To be clear, accounts with the most followers on such platforms are typically celebrities, corporations, pundits, pop culture figures, and establishment politicians, so “politics” is just one dimension of an endless supply of filler stories and rabbit holes that can be used to capture your data, money, and attention. Twitter’s current most-followed accounts are those of Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift, followed closely by famous soccer player Christiano Ronaldo, Lady Gaga, and Donald Trump.
How does this arrangement work for progressive commentators? Let’s say you are a progressive who wants to build an audience on social media (Who can blame you? That’s pretty much the only game in town.) First, you have to spend an incredible amount of resources to promote yourself and your work. You probably have to develop an addiction to a social media platform just to keep up with the output it requires from you to keep gaining followers. And even then, after carving a small community for yourself, there’s no guarantee that your account won’t be censored, capped, blacklisted, and other unpleasant things that happen to those who get out of line.
One could argue that social media companies bring innovation, but try posting a photo from your PC to Instagram, editing a tweet, or reaching 15% of your audience on Facebook without putting money behind your content. Whatever social media companies claim to be these days, their products suggest they are far from the branding they so adamantly push in the mainstream. Such platforms are—through their business models, policies, and public-private partnerships—inherently biased against creators who don’t have a limitless ad budget and/or the right club membership.
Nevertheless, despite setbacks imposed by corporate and social media, many continue to amplify progressive ideas in the mainstream. A project like Progressive Speaker would never exist without Counterpunch, Democracy at Work, Democracy Now!, Empire Files, Free Speech TV, The Intercept, Jacobin, Means TV, On Contact, Redacted Tonight, Ralph Nader Hour, Secular Talk, The Michael Brooks Show, The Real News Network, Current Affairs, The Jimmy Dore Show, The Grayzone, Zero Books and many others whose principled work continues to inspire me and other progressives around the country.
To support Progressive Speaker’s mission, simply share this article with those who would be interested in joining. Prospective speakers can apply directly on the website. The website also features a Resources section where anyone can submit links to content (guides, media, magazines, etc.) that can help progressive speakers reach the public.
Holly B. Shakya, Nicholas A. Christakis, Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 185, Issue 3, 1 February 2017, Pages 203–211.
Kreiss, Daniel and Shannon C. McGregor. “Technology Firms Shape Political Communication: The Work of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Google With Campaigns During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Cycle.” Political Communication 35 (2018): 155-177.