The broken robots running Facebook have decided we need to feel better. It’s a decision that’s going to make a publishers feel a lot worse.
This week, Facebook announced they were again tinkering with the algorithm driving a user’s news feed. The news feed now values content their friends and family share and comment on and de-emphasizes content from publishers and brands. According to The New York Times, things like photos of dogs that garner a large number of comments will be valued over news stories and posts from companies.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg told The New York Times that the company made the changes to ensure Facebook’s products are “not just fun, but are good for people.”
Facebook director of research David Ginsberg expanded on his boss’s theme by saying that the social media juggernaut believes that when people engage with people they’re close to, the engagement is more meaningful, more fulfilling and is “good for your well-being.” The goal, they said, is to have people feel good after using Facebook.
Facebook is never going to make anybody feel good. I don’t know what kind of machine these weirdos think they’ve created but it’s not one that inspires any good feelings. Let’s look at the dog picture example used in the Times story. Seeing a picture of a dog on a computer or getting a message that a friend thinks the picture is cute doesn’t really make you happy. It inspires a range of emotions, from momentary happiness at seeing something cute to sadness that you’re only seeing that cute thing on a computer screen (FOMO is a hell of a drug).
Appropriately, the social media company’s stock value took a hit after the announcement. Reuters reported that Facebook shares fell four percent after Mark Zuckerberg announced the changes to the news feed. Still, there’s little reason to believe they’ll learn their lesson.
There’s no reason a news story would hold less meaning than a post made by a friend or family member. Sure, we love our family and friends and have at best mixed feelings about media outlets. But our family and friends post boring shit about their kids and their vacations. Posts about dogs and kids lacks meaning. News stories are important or at least interesting. They have far more potential to be meaningful. And while they won’t make you happy in the short run, being informed about the world gives you a long term satisfaction that interacting with trivial cute ephemera never will.
It makes too much sense for Facebook to promote personal posts over news for them to stop. After all, personal posts are easier to monetize than news stories. Given a choice, almost any advertiser in the world would want their product featured next to a series of pleasant family pictures than, say, a New York Times story about a drone bombing in Yemen or sexual harassment in Silicon Valley.
And don’t forget Facebook’s unquenchable thirst for personal data. Posts from friends and family reveal far more about you and your personal network than shared news posts. If you comment on your cousin’s cute picture of a dog, Facebook gets a clearer understanding of your relationship.
Yes, the idea that Facebook would promote personal posts to more effectively spy on people seems cynical. But when the counter-proposal is that Facebook sincerely wants us to feel good, cynicism seems pretty well-founded.