has become a feedback loop which can and does, despite its best intentions, become a vicious spiral. At Facebooks scale, behavioral targeting doesnt justit. Over time, a service which was supposed to connect humanity is actually partitioning us into fractal disconnected bubbles.
The way Facebooks News Feed worksis that the more you engage with posts from a particular user, the more often their posts are shown to you. The more you engage with a particular kind of post, the more you will see its ilk. So far so good! Its just showing you what youve demonstrated youre interested in. Whats wrong with that?
The answer is twofold. First, this eventually constructs a small in-group cluster of Facebook friends and topics that dominate your feed; and as you grow accustomed to interacting with them, this causes your behavior to change, and you interact with them even more, reinforcing their in-group status and (relatively) isolating you from the rest of your friends, the out-group.
Second, and substantially worse, because engagement is the metric, Facebook inevitably selects for the shocking and the outrageous. Ev Williams summed up the results brilliantly:
This is the best way I have ever seen expressed what leads to things getting so extreme online.
Robert Kosara (@eagereyes)May 20, 2017
Of course this doesnt just apply to Facebook. The first problem applies to all social networks with smart algorithmic feeds that optimize for engagement. Facebook is just the largest and most influential by far.
The second has been a problem with television for decades. Why have majorities or crazily large minorities of people believed, for many years, that violent crime justkeeps getting worse, that their hometown mall might be bombed by terrorists at any moment, that Sharia law will come to their province/state any day now, that the rest of the world is a war-torn shambles only barely propped up by vast quantities of aidwe cant afford despite the easily available, incredibly copious, clear evidence to the contrary? In large part because if it bleeds, it leads.
Fake news is far from new; its just become explicit rather thanimplicit. And I certainly dont mean to suggest that Facebook singlehandedly caused the terrible trend of demonizing any and all people with whom one disagrees. Studies show that political polarization ismore extreme in older people, who use social media less, than in the young. Whatevers happening is far more complicated than just Facebook is driving us apart.
Still we hoped the 21st century of Facebook would be better, more compassionate, more understanding, than the 20th century TV. But its not, and the ways in which its worse are far more personal. We hoped that making the world more open and connected would be good for us. Maybe it would be, if the metric that the connecting entity optimized for was something other than engagement. But it now seems fairly clear that engagement isnegativelycorrelated with happiness for users, and moderately clear that this is, in fact, a:
No matter what else Zuckerberg does for the world, the simple fact is his product makes millions of people worse off
Christopher Mims 🎆 (@mims)May 28, 2017
The analogy I like to use is global warming causing extreme weather: the more energy pumped into our atmosphere, the more it behaves in bizarre and erratic ways. Facebook is like a powerful greenhouse gas for our collective social atmosphere. TV was too, of course, but it was CO2to Facebooks methane.
I dont want to get into Facebooksprivacy issueshatespeechissues, ongoingrejection of all the principles of the open web, etc. Im not suggesting that this is anyones fault, or even that anyone has done anything wrong. Nothing like Facebook has ever existed before. It is a company that is also a massive global experiment, one with some excellent outcomes.
But it would be good for us all if Facebook were to at least acknowledge the possibility that at leastsomeof their experiments outcomes seem at best worrying and maybe even alarming and something should be done to try to mitigate them. As hard as that admission might be.
Epic corporate cognitive dissonance in conceding making the world more open and connected != an unalloyed good:
Jon Evans (@rezendi)April 18, 2017
Im happy to report that this may well be happening. See Mark Zuckerbergs recentcommentsto the effect that Facebook is working on a way to connect you with people that you should know like mentors. I hope this is the harbinger of a new understanding that Facebooks focus on optimizing for engagement is, in and of itself, harmful to its users and an understanding that its always best to head off a backlash before it begins, rather than after it gathers steam.