I know it’s my third Facebook post in less than a week. I also know that this debate around what is tech, what is media, what is censorship, what makes a community, and what are the limits to user generated content are the most interesting product discussions happening after this election.
Yes, even more than really fun glasses.
It’s not looking good for Facebook today. After Mark Zuckerberg’s denial from last week, today Gizmodo revealed that some Facebook executives were aware that there was a fake news problem and tried to solve it. “One source said high-ranking officials were briefed on a planned News Feed update that would have identified fake or hoax news stories, but disproportionately impacted right-wing news sites by downgrading or removing that content from people’s feeds. According to the source, the update was shelved and never released to the public.” It’s unknown whether this imbalance in effect was a result of there simply being more fake stories with a conservative background vs a liberal background.
Second, as I write this, Buzzfeed reported that another group of Facebook employees were secretly meeting to try and solve the problem: “The employees declined to provide many details on the task force. One employee said “more than dozens” of employees were involved, and that they had met twice in the last six days. At the moment, they are meeting in secret, to allow members of the group to speak freely and without fear of condemnation from senior management. The group plans to formalize its meetings and eventually make a list of recommendations to Facebook’s senior management.”
That it has come to this is a shame, and it feels that it unnecessary. At some point, Facebook, in the interest of optimizing the newsfeed to increase engagement and time spent on site, made a wrong turn or two. These changes took the newsfeed from being a string of personal events to a much less appealing mix of sponsored content, something that someone liked, a share by a friend of a friend, an update to a group, and yes, maybe a few personal updates from friends.
When users started engaging less with the new mix of content, Facebook made sharing easier, but the result of reducing friction was the sharing of less personal content which, in turn, created less an incentive for users to log in and see what their friends shared, leading to less sharing on their part, and so on.
Yet the social connections on Facebook are still relevant and unique. Sheryl Sandberg understands this. In June she said: “When you think about the connections you make on Facebook, people think about strong ties and weak ties. Those strong ties include family and close friends that you contact regularly. What Facebook does is let us hear from more people on a daily basis. What you might call your weaker ties: the people you went to school with, the people not in your current company but your last job, the people from your hometown … so what you get are just more abilities to keep in touch with more people, and over time, we believe, more diversity.” Here she was trying to prove that Facebook users are exposed to different viewpoints but that’s not the point. The point is that among every other social service, from email to Snapchat, it is Facebook that has the most personal social graph. These “weak ties” are ones that are important to users to stay in touch with and passively see updates from. Getting updates on Facebook absolves users from more “strenuous” forms of communication such as email, phone, or (gasp!) sending holiday cards.
I don’t know how Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm works. I don’t know how they choose what to show users. I do know that friends don’t always see my updates and that I don’t see every update from my friends. Instead, I see perhaps more “popular” shares from my network, but these aren’t the personal ones. And this is frustrating. So despite Facebook being the only place where I can hear from my friends, I no longer enjoy browsing through my newsfeed because I no longer see content I care about. I no longer share because I have little faith my friends will see it. Anecdotally, I’ve heard this from other Facebook users.
I wish I had the data and research to write definitively on what made the newsfeed go from the best place to connect with my “weak ties” to a place that John Oliver called a “cesspool of nonsense.” It didn’t happen overnight and started before 2016. Hopefully, it can still be fixed.