Illustration by Katya Obyedkova

Social Media is the New Refined Sugar

Katya Obyedkova
Apr 29, 2017 · 9 min read

When I walk into a grocery store, I have to walk past the veggie aisle to get to the processed foods section. I might not always make the healthiest choices, but I am consciously aware that there is a choice.

For many, reading news on Social Media is akin to landing in the processed food aisle without ever seeing the produce section.

Food packaging signals freshness, quality, and values. Well designed packaging plays an important role in creating a willingness to pay. We are often willing to pay extra to support causes we believe in: organic vs. conventional, recyclable vs. not, local vs not.

Articles are packaged in more or less the same way, they are delivered in the same way, and they are increasingly abundant. When I scroll through a news feed on my phone I see articles from different sources bundled together in a homogeneous list. A title, a thumbnail, a source, and maybe a quick summary. I click on a provocative headline. The thumbnail is now very large, a few ads pop up for the earrings that I looked at yesterday, maybe a random video starts playing loudly. I scroll down reading the article. Four to seven share buttons are stuck in my field of view. I start thinking whether the article is worth sharing but I really don’t know because I’ve been too distracted to read it. When I get to the end I see a call to donate money. Ah, it makes me feel bad. I hastily close the window and continue scrolling down my infinite news feed albeit now with a slight sense of guilt.

When this is the baseline of our online reading experience it is hardly surprising that our willingness to pay for content is extremely low. Only around 10% of online users pay for their news. 67% say they would not pay any amount for their favorite brand. (1)

With countless A/B testing experiments running every second Social Media is engineered for addiction. (2) The revenue of Social Media platforms comes from advertising which means that the more you check-in, the more you click, the longer you scroll, the more advertising opportunities they have. There is no estimate, however, on how much value a piece of content provides to the reader. Albeit imperfect, the food industry provides information that enables consumers to make better choices. Since 1990 the FDA has required a nutrition label on most packaged foods sold (3). However, the media industry has no such equivalent. Visibility of choice is fundamental to any grocery shopping experience. We need to find effective digital media alternatives for what in the food industry is known as the nutrition label, visibility of choice, and packaging.

We were building a world where anyone could be heard but we ended up with a propaganda machine that amplifies everything that we want to hear. We blame our unwillingness to pay. We blame our unwillingness to look outside of our bubble. The problem, however, is that Social Media became the new fast food industry.

Illustration by Katya Obyedkova

Just like the fast food industry relies on statistics to find the perfect amount of sugar, salt, and fat to get us hooked (4), Social Media uses sophisticated content curation algorithms that guarantee we will come back for more. Fast food affects our senses so strongly that it triggers reward circuits in the brain that override appetite suppressing hormones. (5) The reward sensation is powerful, but short lived, so we hunger for more. According to a study from the Journal of Marketing, content that triggers “high-arousal” emotions performs better online. (6) Content that evokes a strong emotional response is most successful on social media. Sharing content therefore is sharing an emotion.

Why do we read?

Let’s start with breaking down some of the reasons we read news articles.
1.) Reading to understand an issue and take a stance.
2.) Reading to stay up to date.
3.) Reading to learn about a new field.
4.) Reading to stay on top of an industry.
5.) Reading to answer a question.
6.) Reading to understand other people.
7.) Reading to satisfy the curious self.
8.) Reading to feel good.

When we discover news on social media it is fundamentally to stay up to date and to feel good. We use Google primarily when we need our questions answered or when we are learning about something out of curiosity. What is missing, however, are platforms that help us understand an issue and take a stance, help us learn about a new field, help us stay on top of industry, and help us understand other people better.

Illustration by Katya Obyedkova

A void in the market

There is a void in the market waiting to be filled. Anyone who succeeds will raise the bar of journalism, help people make more informed decisions, and will bring more transparency into how communities think.

To explain why the void has formed in the first place, I would look at two primary trajectories along which digital media has evolved. The first trajectory is the evolution from a traditional print news into digital media. This trajectory has been characterized by replicating the structure of a print magazine in a digital form. Most of the time articles online look very similar to articles in print. The second trajectory is driven by social media companies. They have become the primary distribution channel for traditional media companies. Reading news is just “another thing” that people want to do on social media. Once traditional media companies lost control of distribution, it became hard to generate profits. Reading news became commodified.

I am not concerned with saving the sinking ship of the traditional media nor do I particularly enjoy any of the current social media offerings. I think that we should take the best from the two models.

Traditional media has remained the best resource of professional journalism. Social media has clearly demonstrated that who shares content is more important than who publishes it. It showed that no single brand can provide us with all the content we want to read. Reading is not just learning what is going on, it is a means of connecting with a community. Despite its advantages, social media has some corrosive side effects: the echo chamber effect, trolls, abusive behaviors, and the overwhelming amount of personal and professional marketing.

Most importantly social media is conducive for only one particular type of reading, the ‘feel good’ kind. It might make us feel connected, confirmed in our biases, “glad it’s not me” satisfaction, cheap thrills, titillation, or schadenfreude. Like refined sugar, it gives a quick high, but might not have much intellectual benefit.

Nutrition Label for the Media

When I get the latest issue of my favorite print news magazine, I know exactly what to expect. I glance at the table of contents and quickly scan my favorite sections for the most intriguing titles. My familiarity with the brand, the layout of the magazine, and the journalist’s name all provide an important context. Nowadays when we discover articles on social media, the context is weak or missing. The main context is who shared the article. We might not be familiar with the particular brand or the writer, which makes it harder to understand the implied bias and trustworthiness of an article. I propose an annotation for each article that could help us position it in context, a “nutrition label.”

Just as we want to know the nutritional value of the food we consume, we want to know the intellectual value of the articles we consume. What would a nutrition label for an article look like?

A nutrition label for an article would help readers appreciate the work and potentially create a willingness to pay. By analogy, knowing that produce is organic might be a good justification for a customer to pay that extra dollar. It is illustrative that subscriptions to the New York Times soared after Trump’s win. (7) What makes a story more valuable? Most of the stories on social media are pure PR. For decades PR significantly lowered the cost of production for publishers. Most of the time it is indistinguishable among other stories which is the key to maximizing its success. PR is the reason why there will always be a lot of free stuff to read on the web. The problem is that the ratio of stories generated by PR and official sources versus stories created by journalists has shifted dramatically (8). While it used to be 40–60 or 50–50 (8), in 2009 it was 86 -14 according to The Study of the News Ecosystem of One American City. (9) Would we have ever discovered the Watergate scandal if the percentage of stories created by journalist was at a meager 14 percent?

If we want to read truly critical and thought provoking stories, a good nutrition label will help us not only find them, but also increase our willingness to pay. My “nutrition label” would include two components: a content creation component and a user generated component.

Content Creation Component:

  • Funding Source.
  • Factual accuracy.
  • Percentage of original reporting. According to a PEW study, “fully eight out of ten stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information.” (9) Original reporting takes time, effort, and resources. Once a story is released it is very easy to copy.
  • Independent identification and pursuit of a story. It is hard to believe that a journalist is able to serve the interests of the public when the ratio of PR to stories created by journalists stands at 86–14. (9)
  • Expert-driven coverage versus insider coverage versus an investigator coverage.
  • Insights based on data. Looking at data for most people is much less fun that reading a story about what that data means. A writer who can see a story in data is incredibly valuable.
  • Custom made assets. This can include original and hard to produce photography/audio/video.
  • Political leaning: Neutral, leaning left/right, extreme left/right. In other words, how does the story fit into the world? A first step is Huffington Post’s interactive tool for exploring news organizations’ biases across a wide spectrum of issues.

User Generated Component:

We need to start getting data on how much value an article provides to its reader. Instead of simply liking or sharing an article, we could rate an article as Informative, Thought Provoking, a Must Know, Helped me Understand an Issue, or an Interesting Opinion.

Visibility of choice

When we discover news on social media we have a worm’s eye perspective. Even if we wanted to look outside of our own network, it is nearly impossible to do so. Being able to see what communities rather than individuals talk about is powerful. Internal tools are available on a B2B basis, though they might be expensive. It is difficult for a curious mind to tap into different communities and see what they talk about.

Illustration by Katya Obyedkova

While companies have been getting much more sophisticated tools for understanding how communities behave, we have been increasingly living in our own bubbles, as a result preventing us from discovering better content, diminishing our ability to understand the issues that we care about, and making us unaware of viewpoints that might challenge our own. Imagine for a second that you could search for any community that is of interest to you and see how it is talking about current events.


Packaging is an opportunity to communicate the value of the content. When print media transitioned to digital space it did not substantially change how an article was presented. Companies experimented with interactive visualizations, but the scale has just been too small. Packaging could have a fundamental impact on both how value of an article is communicated and how a story is told.


In order to significantly shift the PR to journalistic story ratio we need to fundamentally rethink how content is discovered and presented. I believe that if we can make content discovery more meaningful for the readers and be upfront about the ‘nutritional properties’ of content, the demand for higher quality content will follow. Increased demand for quality content will in turn generate willingness to pay and increase the ability of journalists to do their best work.

We need to shift the paradigm of social media from showing us what the obscure algorithms think that we want to presenting us with meaningful options.


  4., Michael Moss
  8. “The Death and Life of American Journalism”, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols