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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Facebook

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.

Is Twitter's downfall imminent? I sure hope so.

Stephen H. Provost

Twitter lost 2 million monthly U.S. users in the latest quarter – 3 percent of its total.

I’m not exactly doing cartwheels over this, primarily because, at my age, attempting such would be downright dangerous. It did, however, make me smile.

There are things you do because you want to, and there are others you do because you have to.

For me, Twitter has always fallen into the second category. I pretty much have to have some presence there because I’m part of the communications business. Journalist. Author. If you’re in either game these days, you need all the exposure you can get.

But Twitter is, to me, what eating my veggies was to my 7-year-old self. It’s something I do while holding my noise to avoid the bitter taste, because I’ve been told, “You must do this because it’s good for you.” Needless to say, that imperative makes it all the more unpalatable.

Veggies have grown on me but, unfortunately, Twitter hasn’t.

I’m not alone in my disdain for Twitter, even among writers and journalists, some of whom have dumped the platform altogether. For these folks, it’s just not worth it:

Last year, a fellow journalist, New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman, quit Twitter because he got sick of dealing with anti-Semitic attacks on the platform. It had become, in his words, “a cesspit of hate.”

Lindy West, an author and columnist, also bowed out, declaring Twitter to be “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.” She concluded her piece in The Guardian with the words, “Keep the friends. Ditch the mall.”

CNN’s Aislyn Camerota realized she was “hanging out with people who find satisfaction spewing vitriol, people who spread racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.”

The medium frames the message

Should we blame the messenger?

As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message” (or “mess age,” as he sometimes quipped). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but the medium certainly frames the message, and Twitter’s 140-character format does just that … in a such a way as to discourage people from thinking. Or analyzing. Or conducting any kind of in-depth dialogue.

Why does Twitter attract the kind of people who ultimately alienated Weisman, West and Camerota? Maybe because it encourages hit-and-run attacks rather than reasoned discourse. Sound-bite politics does the same thing – and is, unsurprisingly, dominated by similar attacks. If you don’t like negative campaigning, you probably won’t care for Twitter, either, because Twitter is all about campaigning.

The platform is dominated by celebrities and wannabrities (along with their fans and sycophants), who are there to promote their name or their brand. Donald J. Trump, celebrity turned politician, is the ultimate creature of the nexus between politics and celebrity that Twitter has become.

Trump’s ubiquitous presence on – and reliance upon – Twitter has confirmed my opinions of both: of Trump as a simpleton who’s deluded himself into thinking he can tackle complex policy issues in 140 characters, and of Twitter as the platform that empowers him (and people like him) to do perpetuate such delusions.

High anxiety

This isn’t to say everyone who uses Twitter is a simpleton or a troll. My point is that the platform’s format attracts such folks, and like many others, I’m not comfortable in the kind of environment that creates.

As someone who’s generally unimpressed by celebrity, that doesn’t appeal to me. Besides that, there’s research that indicates using a large number of social media platforms just isn’t good for you. A study published Dec. 10 in Computers in Human Behavior found that people who used the risk of depression and anxiety in those who used the largest number of platforms was more than three times that of people used two or fewer.

That’s the last thing I need. At last count, I was active on Facebook (my primary platform), Instagram, Twitter and my blog. If I were asked to drop one, it would be a no-brainer to eliminate the one that seemed the most superficial, the least user friendly, the least interesting and the most, well, just plain mean.

That would be Twitter, folks. Where anxiety-inducing trolls and bullies are perhaps most prevalent.

Maybe other people are coming to the same conclusion, and perhaps that’s why Twitter’s user base – never remotely close to Facebook’s in the best of times – is starting to shrink. Maybe another part of it is Trump fatigue. Either way, I’m hoping users are sending a message by abandoning ship: It’s long past time for Twitter to change, and fundamentally, or die.

The Internet is our Matrix, and it's killing us

Stephen H. Provost

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
— Morpheus to Neo in "The Matrix"

The Matrix has you.

Whether you know it or not – and if we stick with the film’s analogy, there’s a good chance you don’t, you’re in the process of becoming dependent upon a form of virtual reality that could just drive you nuts.

So, here’s your red pill.

If you’re reading this, you’re online, which means you’re hooked up to our 21st century approximation of the Matrix, a mechanism that has supplanted our traditional sources of … you name it: shopping, news, entertainment, information. You get the idea.

You’re more likely to find a newspaper – minus the paper – on your computer screen than on your front doorstep these days. You find movie times online now, too, along with the movies themselves. Netflix, anyone? YouTube? Who needs a TV weatherperson when you’ve got And who needs a book when you can download the text to your Kindle?

Despite pockets of resistance, the Internet has become so pervasive that it’s starting to look like Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th century. That company became so powerful, and society so dependent upon it, that the Supreme Court ruled it was a monopoly and broke it up into 34 separate companies.

We can’t do that with the Internet, which unlike Standard Oil, isn’t a single company. And it doesn’t work exactly the way a monopoly does. Unlike a traditional monopoly, hasn’t limited our options, it’s broadened them exponentially, providing access to more streams of information and entertainment than ever before.

Growing dependence

I love that about the Internet, and a lot of other people do, too, which is why it’s become so successful.

Yet in doing so, it’s also become nearly indispensable, and there’s the rub. Even as it has broadened the number of options at our fingertips, it’s narrowed our means of accessing them. The more brick-and-mortar stores close, the more we’re reliant on Amazon and its brethren. The more newspapers shift their focus online, the more we have to shift our focus there, too. The more “streaming” video becomes a thing, the more we rely on it for our entertainment. And so it goes, right on down the line.

National security experts long ago started worrying about our growing dependence on the Internet. Back in the days when MySpace was still a thing, they began warning that even warfare would shift from traditional battlefields to online cyber-skirmishes involving black hats, white hats and a whole new form of espionage.

Turns out they were right. Russian interference in our political process is merely the most blatant example of a problem that’s been simmering for a long time involving hackers on the one hand and security experts on the other, each trying to stay one step ahead of the other.

This involves continual – and rapid – change, something human beings aren’t always comfortable with.

Information overload

Yes, change is good, but constant rapid change puts people in a continual state of anxiety, slaves to a fight-or-flight response that feels like it’s always on the verge of kicking in.

Ever wonder why so many people resist moving away from fossil fuels and toward alternative forms of energy? It’s not because they like pollution or want climate change. It’s not even just about jobs or industries, although that’s a part of it. Fundamentally, it’s about security. We develop habits and, no matter how much we strive to embrace innovation, there’s a part of us that resists it for no other reason than “we’ve always done it this way.”

More to the point, we know how to do it this way.

There’s a tendency to dismiss resistance to change as backward or ignorant, but there’s far more to it than that. It’s a natural human defense against the kind of upheaval we’ve experienced as we’ve become more and more dependent upon the Internet – where rapid change is the rule rather than the exception.

We’ve moved out of the information age and into the age of information overload. I’m not just talking about the proliferation of choices the Internet has offered us. Those are, after all, still choices. There might be millions or even billions of websites out there, but we tend to find those we like and stick to them (insulating ourselves in the process from opinions that don’t gibe with our own, but that’s another story).

Not-so-brave new world

Still, we don’t always have a choice to shield ourselves from information overload, or the anxiety it causes.

One simple example: The demand that we continually change (and remember) multiple passwords as a means of shielding ourselves from identity theft, computer viruses, etc. It’s not like the old days, when you taught your child to remember his home phone number, which never changed unless you moved to a different city.

That’s stressful, and it’s just the beginning.

Add to that the stress of staying on top of internet marketing techniques, whether you work for a major company or are in business for yourself. Google, Facebook and so forth are continually tweaking their algorithms, so marketers have no choice but to respond. A generation or two ago, you took out an ad in the newspaper, on radio or TV, then measured the results in terms of how many shoppers turned our and how big a sales boost you got. Simple cause and effect.

Now, you aren’t limited to those three marketing options, which are largely secondary anyway. Online, you have to market your product via Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram. And Snapchat. And Pinterest. And LinkedIn. And Amazon. And Goodreads. And on and on and on. Each of these platforms has different rules, different systems to learn and different ways of maximizing page views.

(As an author active in promoting my work on all those platforms except for Snapchat, I know what I'm talking about.)

Once you’ve mastered those rules, you’ve got to test them by figuring out where those clicks are coming from, along with the demographics of real and potential customers.

You’ve got to use the proper metadata and keywords. Then, once you’ve got all that in place, you’ll need to measure the performance of text vs. images vs. videos at attracting a user’s attention within a milieu of never-ending options. Are users staying engaged? Are they returning? You’ve got to measure those things, too.

We’re not built that way

Suddenly, you’re light years away from a relying on folks to page through the Sunday paper at their leisure, providing solid customer service when they visit your establishment and hoping they’ll spread the word.

Pretty soon, nearly all your time is being taken up adapting to ever-changing systems, processing information and analyzing the results. Then starting all over, virtually from scratch, when some algorithm-writer changes the rules.

In an atmosphere where marketing is king, queen, prince and pauper, there’s little time left for actually creating the product you’re supposed to be selling in the first place. The process is king, and the product takes second place. Heck, just getting through the process is a challenge – one that often demands a greater degree of multitasking.

Despite what this word might suggest, our brains aren’t built to multitask. If they were, texting and driving would be no big deal.

"If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," David Meyer, cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan, said in an article by Joe Robinson titled The Myth of Multitasking.

The fact is, we can’t think straight when we try to process too many things at once. Our memories suffer. Our ability to think creatively – which involves things like daydreaming, brainstorming and joyfully exploring the world around us – is stifled. We're actually 40 percent less productive.

We become stressed-out automatons, more prone to breaking down thanks to hypertension, fatigue and burnout. But we've fashioned a world for ourselves where we seem to have little choice. It's a world of diminishing product value, increasing health problems and rising frustration – a world where style hasn’t merely surpassed substance, it’s supplanted it.

Welcome to the assembly line. Welcome to the future.

The Matrix has us all.

You ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think. Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity.
— David Meyer, University of Michigan cognitive scientist