Last week, Facebook announced changes to its “Trending” sidebar, where popular news is organized by topic and given a contextualizing sentence by an editor at the company. “Our goal is to enable Trending for as many people as possible,” read an unattributed post on Facebook’s newsroom, “which would be hard to do if we relied solely on summarizing topics by hand.”
A few days after the changes, Trending promoted a story about a popular Fox News anchor that proved to be false. “Facebook fires trending team, and algorithm without humans goes crazy,” read a headline at the Guardian. And while “crazy” may be overstating it, the misfire prompted a debate about whether an algorithm could adequately curate content for an audience. Similar changes at Twitter, announced earlier this year, suggest that some of the world’s most popular platforms are putting more curation responsibility on algorithms.
For purpose-driven organizations, however, content curation will always be more art than science, and the art of curation requires humanity. As you develop and curate content for your audience, here are three reasons why you should show the human side of your cause.
1. Context is king
“Nothing is so obvious that it’s obvious,” said filmmaker Errol Morris. Topics like those provided in Facebook’s example—“Mars,” for instance, or “Louisiana Flood”—may provoke your curiosity, but they won’t necessarily reward it. What about Mars? you may ask yourself. What about the Louisiana flood?
Organizations that curate trending topics do so to perpetuate popular material, but what is “popular” is not necessarily “important.” In order to gain support and attention, purpose-driven organizations and nonprofits cannot merely state their goal; they must explain why it matters.
“Where context is critical to immediately determining how important something is — as is the case with news — human curators are, at least for now, superior to algorithms,” writes Ben Thompson at Stratechery. “Humans are also able to quickly identify that these 40 stories are about the same event, and have the taste to decide which is the best option to present.”
Trending topics have data on their side, and numbers enjoy a certain sort of tyranny. A popular meme could displace a worthwhile cause on the strength of its shares; a dramatic story about a Louisiana flood could take the place of a story that tells readers how to help that flood’s victims.
Context, however, shows your audience why they should care about your story, and how they can provide support. “Numbers can’t speak for themselves,” writes Kate Crawford at Foreign Policy. “Biases and blind spots exist in big data as much as they do in individual perceptions and experiences.”
2. Personal connection
There is a sort of intuitive magic to a human-to-human interaction. When Apple bought Beats for $3 billion, Tim Cook claimed that the acquisition was motivated in part by Apple’s desire to gain Beats’ team of music curators.
Rallying a crowd to support a cause isn’t necessarily the same as rallying a dance party by playing “Countdown.” But the smallest human gestures—an avatar photograph, a byline, a personal email address—remind your audience that there is a person like them on the other side of the interaction.
“Are you more likely to relate to a logo or a face?” asks Anna Chatburn at Mediasmiths.
How to explain the magic behind human curation? That might be beyond the scope of this post, though BusinessesGrow.com offered an interesting theory. “Brand anthropomorphism occurs when we attribute human characteristics such as feelings and soul, or even human shape, movement and voice, to brands,” according to a recent post, which cites a study that claims “brands that were perceived as human scored better on brand relationship quality.”
Substitute your organization for “brand,” and the same wisdom may apply to your cause. A human name, face, or feeling reminds your audience that they have an ally.
Altruism may not be a purely logical impulse. Doing the right thing can challenge our assumptions or our comfort. “How do you program kindness, humor, empathy?” asks the team at RapidWebLaunch.
Algorithms that promote widely read stories and widely shared videos use “popularity” to gauge the worthiness of that media. But popularity is a bad metric for promoting the work of purpose-driven organizations, which work to attract support and marshal resources for worthwhile but often under-publicized causes.
Without popularity to boost your cause, your organization needs to appeal to a person’s capacity for empathy, which some studies suggest can motivate engagement and action. “Popularity” can be a welcome product of your organization’s work, but it should never be the only reason to support a cause.