Social networking sites make users big promises about their possibilities:

  • keeping up with friends
  • connecting with people worldwide
  • discovering new and interesting things
  • keeping informed about events near and far
  • and making your voice heard for anyone to (virtually) hear.

These promises come easy: Enter some basic information, tick the privacy policies and terms of service boxes, and the world is yours — for free!

You might be sensing some sarcasm. You would not be wrong. I must admit I harbor some deep cynicism about social networking sites and their possibilities. Part of that cynicism comes from teaching social media and reading the research that claims these sites make us stupider, meaner, and more isolated. Part of that cynicism comes from the mistargeted and overly cluttered advertising that appears on those sites.

A third part of that comes from content and its delivery. Algorithms manage the process. These procedures determine everything about your experience on a social networking site, including what you see, when you see it, and what you don’t see. These determinations are based on your entered information, the sites’ scraped information, your activities, and advertiser and other preferences. Given the vast quantity of data informing them, algorithms do a lot of work to make social networking sites useable, though not often in ways users prefer. Algorithms regularly garner the blame for poor user experience. That blame also extends to search engines.

The blame is not without warrant. Users remain frustrated with unwelcome and missing content. I follow the awesome Kartemquin Films and write about them regularly, but Twitter has not shown me one of their tweets in my feed for two years. Yet, I could not escape the “Yanny vs. Laurel” meme for the life of me. Ultimately, most social networking sites focus more on the bottom line than on user preferences.

But what does all this mean for bloggers? Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, captures the issue well in his comic titled “Reaching People on the Internet.” In the past, social networking sites facilitated creators connecting with their audiences. Now, social networking sites request payments for promoting posts that your followers might see. Not will see, might see. After Inman posted his comic on Facebook itself, the site offered to “boost” the post to “up to 490,000” people for $2,000.

So I have been wondering if social networking sites interfere with creators connecting with their audiences more so than helping them anymore. After Twitter’s changes during these last couple years, I have seen my own reach and engagement dwindle. Tweets that used to reach several thousand people at a time now reach maybe 250 on a good day. Of those 250 impressions, one or two might engage the tweet further. Of course, I am encouraged to promote every tweet, but I won’t do that to you.

Seth Godin’s recent podcast titled “Blogs and Platforms and Permission” addresses these issues more from the search engine and SEO side, but his points about blogging and audiences still resonate. Instead of chasing the top spots in the search results, Godin says reach for audiences who welome your messages and seek them on a regular basis. He encourages cutting out the middleperson — social networking sites, for example — and using tools that work for you, not against you.

Godin also offers reminders about the personal effects of blogging. He says, “Have a blog because of the discipline it gives you.” He continues

This practice of sharing your ideas with people who will then choose or not choose to share them helps us get out of our own head because it’s no longer the narrative inside. It’s the narrative outside, the narrative that you’ve typed up, that you’ve cared enough to share.

As a blogger seeking some direction and some destination, I found thinking through these ideas helpful. I seek no top search engine placement. I hope that readers find the writing interesting or useful. I prefer not to wrestle with social networking sites for impressions or their limited forms of engagement.

The thinking through also offers a good reminder about the benefits of writing regularly, which is clearly not my strong suit. It can be fun to explore new ideas for a post or two. I need to remember that as I explore writing more often here.