The value of protests in the algorithm age

Leadership Context

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  1. What value do protests have in the age of algorithms that point social media to a select group?
  2. What can we learn from this truth that can be applied to other marketing-related activities?

Protests have an important place in global history, from Gandhi’s Salt March to The March on Washington and MLK’s famed speech. Selma — “The Bridge” — is essentially a protest, and that drove American history forward too (and provided a connection point between Obama and those who came before him). The broader point? Protests are important. They are influential and valuable, and as Aziz Ansari noted in his Saturday Night Live monologue this weekend, most change doesn’t come from one man (i.e. a President or leader). Change comes from groups of people getting aggravated or annoyed about things, which often happens in the form of protests.

We’ve now ideally established that protests are meaningful and relevant. But the contextual nature of them is changing with technology and human nature, and I think that needs to be considered a little bit. Let’s do that now.

Protests and algorithms 

We live in an age of algorithms right now. That’s hard to deny. Much of what you get shown about people you know is the result of algorithms. I don’t know if I can make this any clearer, but let’s try a story.

I personally don’t like Facebook that much and often find it depressing, but I realize a lot of people are on there — and very often. Recently, I use it more as a way to build up my freelance business. As a result, I interact with a lot of marketing peeps and “thought leaders” on there. Because of that approach, some of my real friends slide down my algorithm. I’ve got friends in NYC named Molly and Edwin. They had a kid a few months back. Because I consciously engage with people who might hire me via Facebook, I see less and less posts about this kid — even though his parents are my friends, and these potential clients are not. This is a peril of capitalism, yes. But it also explains how algorithms are dictating our world and what we get to “see.”

How we get, and see, information needs to change how we think about protests and organizing.

Algorithms work because they re-enforce what you already like and believe, which helps companies sell you crap. It also makes you want to keep coming back, because you’re feeling good about the stuff you see. (Mostly.) In short: algorithms basically feed your posts to like-minded individuals, because that’s how they work. It’s how they benefit their creators. This has implications for protests.


This is what a lot of people do, honestly. They share a photo on Instagram from a march — like the women’s marches this weekend. The photo is funny, and/or maybe some of your other friends are in it. You hit “like.” Maybe you even comment.

A lot of people stop there. They think that action — hitting “like” or sharing the photo — is the protest. That’s “fighting Trump” or “fighting this other ill.” This is, unfortunately, not right.

First off, hitting “like” on anything is the most passive action of the modern age. At this point, it means next to nothing.

Secondly, these Instagram protest pictures are being served up to people who feel the same way as you in probably 80 percent of instances. Again, that’s how algorithms work. So rather than being an active part of protests, you’re just underscoring the beliefs of like-minded people.

That’s not actually how change happens. Change happens as a result of agitation, and it happens because people learn about positions opposite of their own. That’s why how to convince someone (of anything) might well be the currency of the modern age.

But I went to the march. You didn’t. So why are you writing this?

Going to the march is great. Being a part of history is great. But what I’m saying is that documenting it on social media and thinking that’s the be-all and end-all is wrong.

So what would be right?

Take the next step. Those would include:

  • Gather emails of people you meet at protests and create a group thread
  • Give money to a cause you respect and fear for
  • Work on a city council or state assembly election
  • Create a newsletter
  • Code a platform where people can meet up and organize/discuss more easily
  • Join a young professional group
  • Talk to your kids about what’s happening and why, even if they can’t yet understand
  • Create coffee learning sessions in your community

These things go one beyond. They make the protests themselves more valuable, because the core issue of the protests lives on beyond the 29 likes it got on Instagram.

A quick note on attention spans

Attention spans are dropping left and right, especially in America. Social media is to blame for some of this, yes. But go into most offices in America and ask people “How are you doing?” The common response is “Busy busy busy!” Lots of stress and “no time for that!” moments out there. Social media plays into that, because if we post a comment or heart something, it feels like we did our part quickly and easily. But some fights are bigger, and require more. These fights are not as conducive to social media. Social media can be a great way to bring people together, but you need to go 1-2 steps beyond simply that.

The protests-meetings parallel

Look, protests are different from meetings — although I bet 1 in every 2 professionals would want to protest meetings if they could. But in the age of algorithms, they are similar in one way.