Understanding social media algorithms

Imagine you’re dating three very different people

Jeff Elder
9 min readOct 23, 2017

Why do you see what you see on social media? How can your business achieve objectives in these feeds? How do the social media algorithms work?

Great questions. Let’s put this in terms that will hold your interest. Imagine you’re dating three very different people.


Twitter is the high-maintenance, sexy boyfriend or girlfriend you are always swearing off for good because they don’t have a real job. The red flags were always there. In June 2009, Time magazine began an article with “The one thing you can say for certain about Twitter is that it makes a terrible first impression.”

But it makes such a strong impression. Many of the most notorious incidents of the Trump presidency have transpired on Twitter. Latenight talk show hosts quote it constantly. A Twitter account is a celebrity necessity. Who can have a 21st century scandal without one?

What you see on Twitter used to be no mystery. In the beginning, Twitter was a reverse-chronological feed of users’ posts. “But over the years Twitter morphed into something more like a public platform for news, opinions, jokes,” wrote Will Oremus in an excellent Slate article on Twitter’s algorithm in March. If you earn a spotlight on that platform it feels like you’re somebody.

Twitter says it selects “each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it.” And: “We choose them based on accounts you interact with most, Tweets you engage with, and much more.”

Huh. “A variety of signals” and “much more.” Is that vague enough for you? This is that bad-news boyfriend or girlfriend popping back up after days off the radar with a ponderous explanation of “I had to take care of some stuff.”

Oremus interviewed Twitter in depth about its Timeline algorithm and says Twitter assigns tweets a relevance score based on factors ranging from “the number of favorites and retweets it received to how often you’ve engaged with its author lately,” and other factors.

What you might not know is you can turn this relevance algorithm off and go back to a simple reverse-chronology showing you the most recent tweets and retweets from people you follow. Here’s how: Go to your Account settings page.

Under Content, look for Timeline and uncheck the box next to Show me the best Tweets first to change the setting.

What about paying for popularity? If Twitter advertising worked great, the company would not still be struggling to make money. (In Q2 the company had a net loss of $116.5 million, nearly $10 million worse than last year.) But if Twitter advertising didn’t work at all, the platform would no longer be such a hectic bazaar in the marketplace of ideas a decade after blowing up at South by Southwest 2007. In other words, it works, but not that well. The bad-news boyfriend or girlfriend works at a bar where their band plays once a week. That was cute in the beginning, but it’s been going on now for a decade.

Unfortunately, paying for Twitter love is as unpredictable as posting organically. “Our platform uses a variety of signals to determine which Promoted Tweets are relevant to users, including what a user chooses to follow, how they interact with a Tweet, what they retweet, and more,” Twitter says. Sound similar to the explanation of organic relevance? It is. Targeting Twitter users via demographics only focuses the algorithm. It’s like moving in with the bad-news boyfriend or girlfriend. It makes the good times better and helps you keep a closer eye on things, but it also costs you money and may just be perpetuating the underlying issues.

So should you advertise? Believe it or not, yes. You should move in with the bad-news lover — if you’re going to be with them anyway. Organic tweets need paid tweets and vice versa. Remember the similar algorithms above? You could argue that the expanded reach of paid tweets is how free Twitter should work already. But another way to look at it is, if your company is tweeting already, not advertising is just holding yourself back. On the other side, paying for better Twitter reach without also tweeting the same messages organically isn’t social media. It’s just advertising.

Twitter’s own ad agency concedes this in a recent Fast Company article by Cale Guthrie Weissman. “What works are campaigns that understand the speed and tone of the site. Some brands get it.”

Days before this writing, Buzzfeed’s Alex Kantrowitz wrote that “Twitter is constantly testing and tweaking the algorithm.” Twitter then vowed to do better. And we took them back, again. Sigh.


Facebook is the boyfriend or girlfriend who is too popular to really be a partner with you. They are friends with everyone. Their calendar is too full. Even when you are together, you have to compete with others for their time and attention. It’s exhausting, and the cozy intimacy you crave seems to always be slipping away.

Cheer up. Around 2 billion other people have the same issue, and you are connected via a platform perfect for complaining about it. You’re in a support group made up of your lover’s exes. It’s an intervention where the guest of honor never shows up. And at least you’re not the poor schmucks who poured a bunch of money into the relationship for some reason believing investment in the relationship would make it more exclusive and fulfilling.

If we spend more time talking about social media internally than we do talking to our customers on social media, something’s wrong.

Facebook has always used an algorithm to determine what to show in the News Feed. Unlike Twitter, it never relied solely on a reverse-chronological (or most-recent) feed of posts. For this reason, there has always been great discussion (mostly complaining) about the content prioritized. I have been working on Facebook or writing about it since 2010. In my experience, there are three factors that people and brands do not understand that help to explain why Facebook shows you some posts and sinks others to the bottom of the News Feed.

Gary Larson’s “Far Side.”
  1. Facebook does not rank what it shows you. It ranks who shows it to you. So if your complaint is: I see all these political posts. Or, I don’t care about sports. Or, I don’t like people’s posts about their babies and pets — Facebook doesn’t care. And, in fairness, there’s not much they can do about that, anyway. If you asked the average person who sees their Facebook posts they might respond “My friends.” But it’s more accurate to say “My friends whom I engage a lot on Facebook, and potentially their friends whom they engage a lot on Facebook. You might have noticed that you have friends on Facebook you never see even though you always passively enjoy what they post. At the same time you may have Facebook friends you see all the time who bug you so much that you leave critical comments on their posts and give them the little angry emoji often. This scenario is like the old Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon on the human giving specific orders to a dog named Ginger, who only hears “BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH GINGER.” Facebook doesn’t understand your gripes at all. It only registers that you engage with one friend and not another. You can select up to 30 people or Pages to see first, at the top of your News Feed. Click the little down arrow at the top right of any Facebook page. Click News Feed preferences. Click Prioritize who to see first Select a person or Page to see first. Facebook explains more here. How to Geek has more on prioritizing friends here.
  2. Facebook wants you to stay on Facebook. Almost all brands, and many people with a pet project or website, want to drive traffic. Too bad. Facebook is like a Vegas casino with no clock on the wall, or a massive mall that provides for all your needs. NPR demonstrated just how insular Facebook can be with a 2014 April Fool’s Facebook post of a story titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” The post generated 50,000 likes, shares, and comments — but very few people actually clicked on the link — which led to a page congratulating “genuine readers,” and disclosing that there was no actual article. So while it’s true that Facebook has recently surpassed Google in referral traffic, according to one study, it’s also important to realize that much of that traffic was to media outlets’ articles on lifestyle, entertainment, politics, and local news. Facebook has for years cut back on the reach of publishers. Brands fare even worse. So while most brands need to have the second digital storefront of a Facebook page, it’s just not realistic to expect it to drive traffic to the first digital storefront, the brand’s website.
  3. Facebook likes brands that act like people. Marketing blogs and advertising agencies bemoan the declining reach of organic posts on Facebook — and that is a legitimate beef backed up with lots of data and frank admissions by Facebook. But it’s important to keep in mind that marketers and advertising agencies benefit by propagating that news. They want you to think it’s hard to reach your customers, that you need professional guidance and insight, and that advertising is increasingly complex and expensive. The fact is: You don’t need to crack the code or be a Facebook guru or get rockstar metrics. In fact, if you find yourself or your company using terms like that, stop talking to each other and start talking to your customers on Facebook. I’ve tried to use a very simple formula in my decade working in social media. If we spend more time talking about social media internally than we do talking to our customers on social media, something’s wrong. If you get a genuine conversation going with your community, then it can be a good idea to promote posts on Facebook. But paying without making that genuine connection first is a mistake. Promoted posts might not work at all, and even if they do, what will happen when the money runs out?
Facebook’s referral traffic is high – but to established publishers’ top stories in certain categories.


Now you are dating a workaholic. LinkedIn is all business all the time, and about as much fun as a PowerPoint presentation on Friday afternoon. And I am here to wholeheartedly endorse it. I want to fix you up with LinkedIn. It will look at its phone in bed and be late for dinners and always be a little stressed on vacation, and that, in the scheme of things, is not bad.

“People only go on LinkedIn when they’re job-hunting” is a frequent complaint, and the proper response to that is, “So?” For the past decade Americans and people in many nations around the world have done a lot of job-hunting. LinkedIn is your online, interactive, living resume with hyperlinks to people who can really help you in life. Do you know how much people would have paid for a tool like that 20 years ago?

If your LinkedIn feed is boring, that’s on you.

So why is your feed on LinkedIn so dull? LinkedIn provides tutorials on configuring your feed, but first, there is one crucial concept to grasp: Connections are different from the people you follow. Or, you can be connected to people on LinkedIn, and not have to see what they post. Look, you probably work with some very nice, capable people who are boring. You would not want to sit around all day listening to them. Conversely, you probably enjoy listening to wild-ass visionaries you would not want to work closely with. Follow the wild-asses; unfollow the boring people; keep the connections. If your LinkedIn feed is boring, that’s on you. Fix it.

You should absolutely explore LinkedIn ads because of the wealth of analytics. Facebook data might tell you if someone likes Mini Coopers, but LinkedIn data tells you the 10,000 people who work for the BMW group that owns Mini Coopers.

As with Twitter and Facebook, your promoted content can’t be dull or self-serving and still perform well. If PR and legal just love it, it’s probably no good. Social media is like rock ’n’ roll. If it’s not a little dangerous, what’s the point?

Buster Keaton finds himself romantically pursued in “Seven Chances.”

Those are your three lovers. What about Instagram? Do you really want to date a model? What about Snapchat? If you’re reading this, you’re too old to date a millennial.



Jeff Elder

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist now writing crypto and cybersecurity. The Paris Review praised my Johnny Cash post.