I’ve been aware Facebook has been tweaking its News Feed algorithm for a while now, but I wasn’t really cognizant of how that actually might impact me until a just few months ago. In fact, Facebook has tinkered with the algorithm for the News Feed regularly since 2012. Ever since then, I’ve noticed how I could see things posted hours and even days previous to when I was scrolling through the pages of updates.
I noticed I was seeing less annoying over-posters who feel the need to share everything in their day. You know, that type of person who makes hundreds of statuses about what they’re eating, what they’re watching on TV, how much they want a puppy, what they currently think about their significant other (for better or worse), how clean and or dirty their car is, what their health issues are, and notably the always tasteful calling out of their so-called “friends”, who happened to ditch them last weekend. Maybe they would hang out with them if they weren’t so painfully annoying on social media! Or, perhaps their true friends don’t mind… Perhaps I’m seeing less of these statuses because its clear I find that type of thing bothersome, and Facebook is protecting me from what I don’t particularly want to see.
I noticed that I saw less baby pictures. I think we all know the type of unabashedly proud new mom that posts so many pictures (especially the Pro Pic) of their baby that it seems less and less like their personal Facebook, and more and more like it’s the Facebook of a newborn child. I love babies, but I didn’t often “like” them, so they started becoming a rarity on my newsfeed. I love posts about music and politics and funny videos, and those started becoming more prominent.
I’ve stood witness to my friends whose News Feeds are inundated with funny videos. Exclusively. No pictures of babies, no status update regardless of message, just page after page of funny videos and memes.
It’s all thanks to the algorithm, which dictates that historical and post-level engagement are the critical factors to exposure. Over the course of several years the algorithm has developed a great deal of complicated features (and there likely are still more to come) but fundamentally the posts that get more clicks, likes, or shares are more often at the top of the News Feed. Consequently, if one doesn’t tend to click, like, or share a certain type of status, it is far less likely to receive priority.
Objectively, this makes for a more enjoyable social media experience. Despite the complicated algorithm, I end up seeing more of “the good stuff” and less of
“the boring stuff”. To be fair, there’s far too much content to see everything, and important things are necessarily going to fall through the cracks. The algorithm is supposed to remedy that. Still, I’m not sure this is a desirable outcome from a personal connection standpoint – a tenant to the integrity of social media – because it smells of forced virality. If a post gets hundreds, then thousands (and then maybe even millions) of likes, I want it to be because the content disserves that kind of attention, not because it used the language that the algorithm categorizes as exciting so therefore more and more people see it, resulting in a snowball effect of viral communication.
The biggest drawback I see to this practice is that while the algorithm may show people what they typically would want to see, it may not show them what is good for them. The algorithm doesn’t guarantee that same sense of confrontation that the old Facebook did – where the good the bad and the ugly were displayed out in chronological order for all to see (though it is still an optional setting).
I can see that this would implicate a lot for social media activism. Activists once posted so all their friends, politically active or not, could at least glance at their rant about some outrageous practice. It arguably might have made a difference. But as we all know, political – let’s call them “debates” (to be kind) – can get colorful, hateful, and sometimes just downright ignorant. Even if the issue is of concern, a lot of people on Facebook just don’t want to see spiteful banter. The newsfeed algorithm helps with that.
But it also means that less people in one’s social network see the politically charged posts, and those that do are likely to be the type of person already engaged with the issues. Instead, the friends that don’t think to challenge the status quo can continue with their lives blissfully ignorant. I’ve noticed this quite a lot during the recent (and politically charged) posts that followed the State of the Union, as well as the Michael Brown and Eric Garner verdicts. What once would have forced controversy in the face of the people, allowing it to get hashed out in comments, is now somewhat reduced to activists telling other activists how messed up the world is. The News Feed algorithm does make Facebook more personalized and enjoyable, but it also somewhat encourages homogony of content. I don’t think that’s a great feature for the world’s largest social network.