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Common Reading 2022: The Organic Myth: There’s No Type of Content that is Natural to Social Media by Elinor Carmi

The Organic Myth: There’s No Type of Content that is Natural to Social Media — Elinor Carmi

Elinor Carmi asserts that social media is not organic but is instead organized by a “rhythm” meant to keep people on the platform. Social media companies alter users’ experiences and their understanding of those experiences for economic gain. There is no “organic” content on social media because there are always humans and algorithms controlling what users see.

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think are the best strategies for combatting some of the issues with social media that the reading raises?

2. The reading mentions several techniques that social media companies use to keep users on the platform. Can you think of a time when any of these techniques worked on you? If so, how, or if not, why not?

Class Activity

Open the app or visit the website for your favorite social media platform. Scroll through your feed for a minute or two and note what kind of content you see and in what order you see it. What kinds of posts made you want to keep scrolling? Why? Do you think your experience would have been different if you had seen the posts in a different order (e.g., chronologically)? Why or why not?

Introduction — Heather Lang

I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I frequently use social media to keep in touch with my long-distance loved ones—people I sometimes go months or years without seeing in person. I’m also a researcher focusing on how social media can promote positive social change—I've written about movements like #MeToo to argue that social media can provide a platform for creating sustained visibility for violence against women. Yet, the last few years have shown me that, as much as I love it, social media can be really dangerous, and not just because my mom occasionally tags me in embarrassing memes.  

In the early days of social media, users enjoyed the freedom to create and share their own content with audiences of their choosing. It felt as though content was growing and spreading “organically,” created by and for users without other intervention. Yet, as these platforms evolved into mega tech companies, like Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, among others, we became aware that their inner workings were often hidden to avoid criticism. We know these apps are carefully designed to keep users on screens as much as possible, but we simply don’t know the methods these platforms use to determine what content users see. We don’t know how these platforms work, even as these platforms have reorganized our relationship with media, and even as these platforms actively shape how we live our online and offline lives. 

Elinor Carmi demystifies that the myth of “organic” content and demonstrates how social media companies take advantage of users’ uniformed use to create more opportunities for engagement, advertising, and data mining. Though she uses Facebook as a model for this argument, don’t be fooled—all social media companies make use of the same strategies. As you read, consider the ways that information or content you’ve seen on social media has influenced you. How well was that information vetted? Where did it come from? How could you confirm its accuracy? You might also consider your rights as a social media user—what do you expect from a platform? How can a platform honor its responsibilities to its users? 

Facebook Demtricator - Benjamin Grosser

"The Facebook interface is filled with numbers. These numbers, or metrics, measure and present our social value and activity, enumerating friends, likes, comments, and more. Facebook Demetricator is a web browser extension that hides these metrics. No longer is the focus on how many friends you have or on how much they like your status, but on who they are and what they said."

Check out the site here!

About the Author

Elinor Carmi is a feminist, journalist, and postdoc research associate at the Communication and Media Department at Liverpool University, UK. She published her second book Media Distortions: Understanding the Power Behind Spam, Noise and Other Deviant Media in 2020, and she’s currently working on several projects around data literacies. 

Additional Resources

Check out Dr. Carmi’s book Media Distortions. According to the site, "Media Distortions tunes into the politics behind categories we take for granted such as spam and noise, and what these mean for our broader understanding of, and engagement with, media." The book is a deep dive into spam and other “distortions," looking at how they affect our understanding of media. Check out the site and the book's download link by clicking here!

If you are interested in some of the articles linked in "The Organic Myth," you can find them here:


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