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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Twitter

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.

We let the trolls out, and now they're running the show

Stephen H. Provost

“Don’t feed the trolls,” they say.

Good advice, but it’s not that easy these days.

Our lives have become a Facebook group, a Twitter feed, a Reddit thread. We haven’t just immersed ourselves in those things; it’s more pervasive than that: We’ve started to rebuild our society in their image. Welcome to the social media experiment of the 21st century.

It’s an experiment we started without any clear plan to prove our hypothesis. Hell, we don’t even have a hypothesis. We’re flying by the seat of our pants into a radioactive “social laboratory.” Whether we’ll make it out in one piece is anybody’s guess.

The new reality

Mass communication has always played a huge role in defining us as a society. We’ve read our daily newspaper, gathered around the radio for fireside chats, watched newsreels and fantasies at the local theater and vegged out in front of the TV. But this is different. Those media — with the exception of the occasional letter to the editor — were all passive, and that allowed us to keep the trolls safely tucked away under their bridge, where they belonged.

Social media have changed all that because they’re, well, social. Who let the trolls out? We did, and they’re not confined to chat rooms and message boards anymore. They’re running around loose in the real world, wreaking havoc and doing their best to tear our social fabric to shreds.

Take this Milo Whatshisname, for instance. This self-described “dangerous faggot” goes around the country on a speaking tour designed to piss people off. The more outrageous he is, the more outrage he provokes. People get angry and protest, which leads to media coverage and — voila! — the attention he’s been seeking. Game over. The protesters are playing right into his hands.

But in an era when trolls are running amok, having escaped the confines of the computer screen, do they really have much choice?

The troll’s game

Imagine you run a social media group. You set some ground rules, start sharing ideas … and inevitably, a troll finds his way in.

He hasn’t been there long before he starts causing trouble. He rails against you for refusing to delete something he finds offensive. Then he accuses you of censorship when you delete one of his posts – ignoring the fact that it violates your ground rules. That just means (according to him) those rules should be changed. In fact, he says, he could do a better job of running the group, and he lets everyone there know it.

Now imagine you can’t block the guy, and members of the group can’t leave. He’s got a captive audience, and even though a lot of members tune him out, a lot of others start listening because he’s so loud and insistent he’s hard to ignore. He finds out what they’re angry about, and he tells them he’s angry too; then he takes that shared anger and directs it at you.

It isn’t long before the guy dominates the group’s discussion. Ideas don’t matter anymore. All that matters a single question: Are you for the troll or against him? The question has to be resolved, so the group decides to vote on who should be in charge, you or him.

In fact, however, the vote doesn’t really resolve anything. Whoever wins, the other side feels alienated. But remember, no one can leave. The troll doesn’t really care who wins: All that matters to him is that he’s the center of attention, and he’ll still be the same attention-seeking drama king regardless of the outcome.

The group, meanwhile, has become dysfunctional and paralyzed. As long as it’s spending all its time talking about him, it can’t be bothered to discuss actual ideas. To look for innovation. To work toward solutions.

A world without rules

“Wait a minute,” you might object. “That stuff doesn’t really happen on social media. There are safeguards. You can block people. You can leave groups.”

And you’d be right.

But this isn’t about social media anymore. It’s about what happens when you take the culture of social media and apply it in the real world, where those safeguards don’t exist.

In the real world, trolls can get elected, and you can’t leave – unless you’re wealthy enough to emigrate, and assuming you want to abandon the place you’ve called home all your life.

It’s easy to avoid feeding the trolls when they don’t have power. When they do, it’s a different matter entirely. Do we ignore them, knowing they’re just in it for the attention? Will that rob them of their power? Or do we actively oppose them, fearful that this very thirst for attention will motivate them to keep pushing the envelope … until it falls off the table into the rubbish heap?

Social media aren’t to blame for this dilemma. The fault is ours for thinking we can apply the rules of social media to real life when we can’t.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve systematically imposed the social media template on the real world. We’ve created a culture in which break room conversations sound like rhetoric from Reddit; where science and pragmatism take a back seat to ideology; where politicians decide to campaign (and govern!) via Twitter.

And where the trolls are running the show.

They’ve escaped from under the bridge and want more than anything to put us there instead. It’s a bridge we built ourselves using social media, and if we’re not careful, it’s going to come crashing down on all of our heads.