Does social media require a human touch?

Can algorithms alone source and even create content users want to see on their social media feeds, Gurjit Degun asks.

When we scroll through a social media news feed, we are all guilty of clicking on the same types of posts day in, day out. Whether it’s fashion, sports or funny videos, the clever bods behind the scenes seem to know exactly what we want by using algorithms to analyse human behaviour.

But it doesn’t always go according to plan, as Facebook learnt last year when its "year in review" feature brought back upsetting memories for some people. The algorithm pulled together images from the year for users with the caption: "It’s been a great year. Thanks for being a part of it."

With risks like that, algorithms are perhaps not a great idea if a site wants to cover hard-hitting news.

The photo-sharing app Snapchat, for example, is hiring journalists for serious news coverage.

This human touch is helping the company compete with bigger players, as Evan Spiegel, the Snapchat co-founder, said at the Cannes Lions last month.

Snapchat isn’t the first to turn to humans for help. Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have all hired people to sift through the vast amount of content on their platforms to create newsworthy feeds or themed divisions.

However, Amy Kean, the head of futures at Havas Media, argues that human involvement isn’t always necessary. She notes that some of the biggest success stories in social have been based on algorithms and warns against underestimating "the power of machines in replicating that human touch".

"Progress in artificial in­telligence over the past 12 months has generated some remarkable creativity," Kean adds. "Unilever’s artificial chef for Knorr is one of the first good examples of a consumer-facing social product that has been able to effectively fake human interaction."

Iain Matthews, Deep Focus London’s chief strategy officer, agrees: "‘Social media’ is just platforms that allow humans to share their experiences really fast and really far; the human touch is built-in."

It’s a fine line to tread – human involvement should not be too overpowering but it can be a helpful advisor. As Spiegel says: "It’s weird when brands act like your friend; they need to be friendly but not a buddy."

YES Matt Rhodes, digital strategy director, WCRS

"The most important thing is the human touch. The trend is for social platforms to get closer and closer to the way we communicate as human beings – for example, from text updates to short-form video shared in the moment."

YES Kayley Almond, community manager, Lowe Profero

"There’s so much information out there. But one piece of information will be missing: is this content any good? Run your post through any algorithm and it’ll draw a blank; the only way to get to this answer is to put it in front of a human."

YES Sarah Baumann, managing director, Atelier

"The human touch is vitally important on social media. The brands that are most successful on social are the ones that feel as though it is just one person chatting directly to another – informal, informative and humorous."

YES Paolo Nieddu, managing partner, AnalogFolk

"Forced friendship is a step too far. However, ‘authenticity’ seems to be the latest ad industry buzzword and, in this age of complex algorithms, bots and programmatic media, how can it truly be achieved without that human touch?"