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Tyranny by algorithm: Facebook doesn't want you to read this

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Tyranny by algorithm: Facebook doesn't want you to read this

Stephen H. Provost

If you’re on Facebook, chances are you won’t see, let alone read what follows. Facebook’s latest algorithm will probably deposit it in the dustbin of oblivion.  

Facebook doesn’t want blogs like this cluttering up its precious feed. It wants you to watch videos. And more videos. And even more videos. It also wants to divert you from the news feed altogether so you’ll spend more time on its largely ignored “Facebook Stories” feature (an attempt to be more like Snapchat).

Hey, Facebook, if I wanted something like Snapchat, I'd use ... Snapchat. If I wanted to watch videos, I’ll turn on my TV or hop over to YouTube. At least there I can choose what I want to watch. 

This is the crux of my problem with Facebook, and I suspect others are having the same issue: Facebook is giving users less and less control over their experience on the platform and trying to force its own preferences down our throats.

Users taken for granted

This will end badly for Facebook, but it’s operating in full panic mode and isn’t interested in playing the long game. It’s obsessed with the two-front war it’s waging in the present moment. One one side, it’s on the defensive against charges that it unwittingly facilitated Russian election meddling. On the other, it’s trying to placate stockholders who are demanding continued growth – in spite of the fact that nearly 30% of the world’s population (2.23 billion) are active users of the platform.

In a world of 7.6 billion people, not all of whom are connected to the internet, there’s only so far you can grow. But you can increase engagement time, which is something videos do. So, naturally, Facebook is foisting more videos off on us. (Many newspaper websites are trying the same trick, ignoring the fact that a whole lot of people actually enjoy reading the newspaper, not “watching” it. As I mentioned, we have YouTube and cable news channels for that.)

On July 26, Facebook stock lost about one-fifth of its value, or $120 billion. No wonder the company is panicking.

But it’s so busy responding to stockholder demands and charges of Russian tampering that it’s forgotten about its users. In one sense, this is nothing new. Facebook seems to be continually tweaking its algorithm and periodically faces outcries for changes to its format. Those outcries tend to die down after a while because Facebook is by far the most widely used social media platform. It enables users to reach the most people, so users grouse, bite the bullet and keep on coming back.

Antisocial behavior

Consider this, however: The more restrictive Facebook becomes, the harder it will be to connect to so many people, and users will eventually get wise to this. Facebook recently announced it would be ending users’ ability to access custom feeds for different groups of friends on Apple devices, forcing us to rely on its main feed for everything from our iPhones.* This means it will be harder to choose whom to interact with online. We might have 3,000 friends among those 2.3 billion users, but we'll really have to work to get in touch with more than, say, a couple of hundred – and many of those not on a regular basis.

This might be good for advertisers, but it’s bad for users who want more options, not fewer. Instead of building bridges between users, Facebook is erecting walls. That's anti-social, which isn't what you're looking for on social media.

In contrast, other media platforms are boosting user choice while Facebook is restricting it. My cable TV package allows me to play shows on demand, record them to watch later and choose among hundreds of channels. I can freeze a show if I’m distracted and rewind it so I don’t miss a beat. I couldn’t even imagine doing that back in the ’80s or ’90s. But today, I have the choice.

Facebook users don’t.

Having endured criticisms from users in the past, Facebook may well be taking them for granted. That’s a dangerous game to play. Facebook has been at the top of the social media mountain for a decade now, which is an eternity in the world of social media. Remember when AOL ruled the internet? Netscape was the wave of a future that never arrived. MySpace was a two-ton gorilla for a couple of years before Facebook shot it off the Empire State Building. Google+ was the next big thing.

Offline, newspapers once seemed as integral to American life as highways and fast-food chains. Now they’re fighting for survival as they pursue a Facebookesque strategy of giving readers fewer choices (smaller sections with fewer pages and less comprehensive stories).

Not invulnerable

There are other options out there. Twitter, in trouble a couple of years ago, redesigned itself to look more like Facebook (or at least like Facebook did then). It’s possible that Trump and other celebrities’ continued use of the platform gave it enough of a reprieve to pose a challenge to Facebook in the future. Or something else may emerge.

If Facebook thinks its impervious to user concerns, it needs to think again. Users will find or build a better mousetrap for themselves, with a greater variety of cheese that doesn’t clamp down quite as hard.

Then those shareholders will be really unhappy.

* Note: Facebook’s announcement says: “Starting August 9, 2018, you won't be able to use friend lists to see post from specific friends in one feed using the Facebook app for iOS devices,” but it doesn't say this is because of a problem interfacing with iOS. Instead, Facebook’s stated purpose is “to focus on improving your main News Feed experience.” This story has been updated to reflect that the change applies to the Facebook app on iOS.

Stephen H. Provost is an author, historian, former journalist and media critic. His book Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump is available on Amazon. He's on Facebook (for now), Twitter (intermittently) and Instagram, waiting impatiently for something better to come along.