Social Media Algorithms Are The New TV Directors

Over the course of the past couple of decades, the way we consume and interact with media has changed completely. Long gone are the days when a carriage on a train was filled by commuters reading books; everyone simply browses their smartphones. We can no longer count the number of television channels on one hand and so are not limited to one of two mainstream news outlets. And rather than TV execs, it is now we, who set the agenda.

Where we’ve witnessed the demise of print media over the last few years with huge publications moving online or having to pull production altogether, we’re now seeing television being replaced by social media.

To understand the shift, we have to look at how it began. Consumers used to have access to a few channels, and then cable services suddenly gave us hundreds. In tandem with increased accessibility and affordability of internet services, audiences were suddenly empowered and could choose what and when to watch content. If we didn’t agree with a news outlet’s particular reporting, we’d simply flick channels and find one more in line with our perspective. This is called the fragmentation of media.

Skipping ahead a couple of decades, we now have access to any kind of information at any moment.The world is now, quite literally, at our fingertips. Media is consumed on the go and people get the news, watch shows, and read books on mobile devices. There’s a quote from the film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ where Brooks says “The world went and got itself into a big damn hurry.” In the age of social media, consumers want relevant, tailored and engaging content and they want it now.

Do you remember missing your favorite show back in the day? Did you tape it on the VCR? On demand has also taken care of that problem too meaning we even get to choose when we watch a show. TV bosses have little control over what we watch and how we watch it. Digital media platforms provide the content and we control what we see. Mobile was the secondary screen while watching TV but now seems to have become the primary and the TV, if it’s on, is on in the background.

Social media platforms took the world by storm and they have consistently evolved over the last decade and a half. There are now 3.17 billion internet users in the world and over 2.3 billion active social media users. Users are still able to share selfies, post updates and connect with anyone, anywhere, but the onus is now shifting to consumption. Twitter has recently changed it’s description in the app store from Social Networking to News. Consumers used to watch channels at a specific time to get their news, they can now scroll through a timeline and read easily digestible headlines in a letter of seconds.

Media consumption has gone from being fragmented, to being distorted.

App updates and algorithm changes have taken over from the TV bosses who used to decide the schedule of programming. TV bosses can still decide what should show and when to ensure target audience reach, but this will never be as effective as highly targeted and timely content on social. TV bosses also no longer get to set agendas for celebrities appearing on their networks. Previously the Director General of the BBC was under pressure to make sure both sides of an election got equal coverage. And while this debate continues for the current US election, what FOX are showing versus what CNN are showing, the bigger debate and question mark is over what news Facebook are filtering.

Those who understand this will be the real winners. Donald Trump’s campaign spending has been as erratic as his campaign in general. However, he has recognized that marketing is no longer linear. Stars can write their own scripts and essentially handle their own PR by using social networks such as Snapchat and Instagram. Retailers also handle their own marketing rather than paying huge portions of their budgets for air time on TV, which is why 91% of retail brands now have two or more social accounts.

Each time a social network (read: new media channel) changes a feature there is a clamor that they are ripping off a rival. See Instagram video in response to Vine, or Instagram stories in response to Snapchat. The features are just how media platforms are evolving. When a TV station decided to do 30-second ads, and another one followed suit, was there a big debate that only one should do it? Same for Friday night shows, or 6 o clock news — features to social networks are the new programming decisions. That part is done as much by the head of product as is an algorithm, but the important point here is to say that in years to come when this is all the norm, we won’t be debating over when features were introduced. Just like we became so accustomed to TV norms.

Social networks are the new media. Their features are the new norm. Those who appear on the new media channel know the game, like Trump or the influencers. But what about those TV directors, do they have jobs any longer. The harsh truth is that the skills required have changed. There are many TV directors who are winning on new media channels. The ones who have understood and embraced it.

So the next time Facebook or other does something that another platform already has, don’t think of it as something to comment on, rather see it as a maturity of new media, a consistency across the new media channels that are the normal for fragmented and distorted media consumption we now enjoy.

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