Olly Headey

April 16, 2024

Tripping the like fantastic

Since I’m fasting on Twitter and generally of weak mind, I found myself endlessly scrolling through the algorithmic “For You” feed on Threads with my best vacant zombie-face on. You know Threads, it’s that banal and lifeless version of The Social Media App Formerly Known As Twitter (SMAFKAT – the .com is available, you’re welcome). If you don’t know Threads, best to keep it that way.

During this scrollathon, lots of people I don’t and never will know were posting threads bemoaning the lack of engagement with their posts on Instagram. “Yo, I have 174k followers and only 200 people see my posts!” kind of stuff. They had been scrutinising their insights, blaming The Algorithm™, becoming outraged and demanding it be fixed. 

The problem isn’t the algorithm though is it? Ok, technically there might be a glitch in the Zuck Matrix, but the problem is why we obsess over numbers that we cannot control. Why do we do what we do on social media? We are the problem.

One of the things I love about writing on HEY World is that it’s so super-basic there are no insights on visitor data available. I don’t have a scooby who reads this shit! Ignorance of the numbers is absolute bliss. Maybe that’s because I’m not writing on here for traction, engagement or recognition, I just like writing. I find it’s good for the brain, I like trying to be clever (ahem) with words and I get a mild kick out of finishing an article and putting it out there. Either way, numbers, schmumbers. They just get in the way.

(Confession: HEY World uses Plausible Analytics so when I worked at 37 I did take the occasional look behind the scenes to see the number of visits to my site, so thank you dear reader).

I understand how easy it is to get fixated on likes and engagement (been there), but unless you’re an influencer or YouTube “content creator” (for the love of all things creative help us invent a better name!), it honestly doesn’t matter. It’s largely out of your control and if you obsess over it, you’re going to find the tail starts wagging the dog and you’ll be writing – sorry, “creating content” – with the modus operandi of pleasing a phantom, shapeshifting algorithm. It’s futile and anti-art. The robots will have won and all hope is lost.

Instagram is arguably the worst for this. I’ve been posting street photos on there for quite a while and there’s no obvious pattern to what makes it tick. Some photos gets more engagement than others, and often not the stuff I like the most. A recent photo of The Shore in Leith was popular, for example. This photo was nice enough if a little boring, but the location is instantly recognisable and relatable so people like it. It would be pretty easy, especially in Edinburgh, to keep taking photos like this to bring in more likes and followers, but who wants to be a slave to the machine? At that point what you’re doing is no longer art. It’s the antithesis of art. It’s business, and it’s a tragedy. 

Actually, scratch that. Even if you’re doing this for business it’s still a tragedy!

If you’re running a business and want more engagement on LinkedIn to boost the bottom line then of course you’ll need to publish blog posts and make videos, but what and how you write should be authentic, not reduced to “10 tips for …” click-bait nonsense because “it performs better”. You’re selling out. Write how you want to write, make videos the way you want them to be made, push the boundaries and the buttons that you want to push. Don’t follow the latest viral sensation, do the opposite. Aim to be timeless, not timely. 

I’ve no doubt this sort of idealism will be resoundly panned by growth marketing experts, but I genuinely believe that what goes around comes around. What is cool and popular now will not be cool and popular soon, so think different, be creative, enjoy yourself!

By doing your own thing you can survive flash trends and algorithmic tantrums, but you still need to do it well, do it regularly, and do it for the long haul. It may be that after years of work you don’t actually see any shift in engagement because, well, frankly nobody is interested. If you end up in that scenario, don’t ask yourself what you’ve lost, look at what you’ve actually won. You might not have the groupies, but you’ll be beautifully bronzed by the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from having done your own thing while helping to make the internet a better place to be. Tell me that doesn’t sound more rewarding than being sentenced to years in marketing purgatory grinding out bandwagon banality for the sake of some fleeting likes.


About Olly Headey

Journal of Olly Headey. Co-founder of FreeAgent. 37signals alumni. Photographer.
More at headey.net.