Social media may be easy to access, but communicating with people via social media isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Posting content online isn’t the same as getting it in front of them. It may be public, but a lot of effort is still needed to publicize what you post.

In theory, social media has levelled the playing field so that anyone can participate, share content and attract attention to what they post. And, yet, in reality, it doesn’t work like that. The content that attracts attention – is favorited, liked and re-shared – isn’t meritocratic.

Content that is embarrassing, humiliating or grotesque spreads much more quickly than that which is sincere. Just as fear has always sold newspapers, it also pulls people in online. Content creators have started trying out novel techniques to get people’s attention in this world of overload. “Listicles”, viral videos and memes are all buzzwords referring to types of content that is designed to attract clicks like moths to a fire. This raises serious questions about what responsibility we have when we post content online, especially when we’re both trying to attract attention and be responsible citizens.

In a mediated world, where an unprecedented amount of content is whizzing by, people have to develop complicated strategies for managing and processing the large streams of media that they have access to. It’s simply not possible to follow everything and so we rely on others to curate content for us; historically, we’ve turned to professional curators such as newspaper editors. With the rise of social media, our own personal networks have become our de facto curators.

People’s experience of social media varies widely, depending heavily on how the people around them use these services. Most people don’t follow strangers randomly; they follow people they know, respect or are curious about. Because of countless historical reasons, people’s personal networks are shaped by race, class, religion, geography and language. This gets reproduced online and is often referred to as the “filter bubble”. As a result, just because people are all on one social media site together does not mean that they are exposed to each other’s content. How you see Instagram, the photo sharing service, is fundamentally different than how I see Instagram because we inevitably follow different people.

The visibility of what you post also varies tremendously. Just because you have 7,492 followers on Twitter does not mean that 7,492 people read your tweets. Not all of your followers log in every day or read every tweet. And, if you’re like most people, you have a lot of “bots” – automated accounts – mixed in with authentic followers.

To complicate matters more, your followers all have different numbers of people they follow. If your mom only follows three people and logs in every day, she’s most likely going to see all of your content. But if some of your followers are following thousands of people, your tweet is a needle in a haystack. Even messages directed at a specific user – @replies – are tricky because some popular Twitter users receive thousands each day, making it impossible for them to keep up.

Because social media can be so overwhelming, services like Facebook have worked hard to algorithmically curate content for you. Facebook’s algorithms determine which of your posts are even made visible in your friends’ feeds. If your update doesn’t have content that has been computationally determined to be compelling (popular links, images, references to brands) or if your earlier content didn’t attract likes or comments, Facebook won’t even show your new content to your friends. This can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, Facebook is trying to make its users’ experience more delightful by providing them with things that Facebook thinks they will find more valuable. On the other, these algorithms tend to reinforce existing biases.

This dynamic also turns everyone into a beggar. They need to generate likes or comments to have their content spread. So they beg for attention. Up pop systems like “hashtags for likes” where people promise to like each other’s posts if they put the right hashtag there. Whatever is measured is gamed.

This creates significant complications for organizations working to share their message. For example, if you’re an organization trying to get people’s attention through a Page on Facebook, you had better be ready to pay to have your content promoted; less than 1% of those following a Facebook Page are shown its updates. Instead of looking for authentic engagement, companies often resort to getting the appearance of engagement.

Social media has introduced an entirely new media landscape. Those who can leverage these tools to share information can usurp traditional modes of top-down media distribution. But successfully embracing social media requires significant media literacy. It requires living and breathing the dynamics of these systems, appreciating their strengths and limitations.

Part of a series on the top ten trends in social media

Author: danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. 

Image: A spider’s web. REUTERS