Is the social network contributing anything meaningful to users in return?
Is Facebook connecting people? Or is it doing the opposite: rather than bringing us together, is it leaving us more disconnected? Recent discussions about the echo chamber effect that followed the 2016 U.S. presidential election left a lot of us wondering who exactly Facebook benefits. With most of its earnings (a whopping $18 billion in 2015) made entirely through ad revenue, users are contributing to Facebook’s growth, but is Facebook contributing to ours?
More than just a tech company, Facebook is undoubtedly one of the biggest media platforms on the planet. The newsfeed is a literal stream of news. It tells us stories about what’s happening in the world around us, locally and globally. The trouble is, there is no such thing as truly neutral news; there’s always going to be bias. So while some of it may be wrong, inaccurate or ridiculous, it’s still news. Given the enormity of our globalized, interconnected experience, there will always be things that don’t make the cut. The decision as to what does is inherently a political one. It’s the difference between whose voices we hear and whose remain alien.
So what kind of story is Facebook telling us? The echo chamber effect has exposed the extent to which, unfortunately, the story Facebook users are getting is not a comprehensive one. The surprise result of the 2016 election, which defied the consensus view of mainstream media and pollsters alike, was in part the consequence of narrow online listening practices. Olivia Solon wrote a thought-provoking piece in which she suggests that in prioritizing what we already “like” and agree with, Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm tends toward homogeneity and division rather than exposing us to difference and otherness.
The reason for this bubble can be traced to Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm. The first thing to note is that the newsfeed is not chronological. Content is ordered by “relevance” or, in other words, what we’re most likely to “engage with.” Facebook’s algorithm known as EdgeRank prioritizes certain pieces of content over others. It’s an ongoing project, and it’s constantly being updated and tweaked based on data collected from users’ online behavior. Facebook also has a horde of guinea pigs in Knoxville, Tennesee (plus 700 others around the US), who spend their days scrolling through their newsfeeds and providing feedback to the engineers.
The newsfeed works like this for a number of reasons. Initially, content — status updates, posted images, links, etc. — was presented chronologically, but this wasn’t always ideal if you weren’t keen on getting a live stream of every single “like” on your ex’s new relationship status. Understandably, perhaps you are less interested in Aunt Carol’s kitten-mittens business and more interested in certain subject areas or trends that actually apply to you(r dog). This is where the notion of “relevance” came in, filtering content based on your clicking, commenting and reading habits.
On the surface, this seems quite reasonable, but as we’ve discussed, the logic of “relevance” has its issues. Not only is it slightly isolating to be exposed to only what you’ve already proven to like, but what we “like” isn’t always the same as what we need. Furthermore (and here’s the clincher), as Facebook makes money through ad revenue, obviously a layout that keeps you on the site longer will make them more profit. More Nutella recipes = more scrolling = more ads = more $$$. Even if Facebook doesn’t like the idea of an “editorial” newsfeed, the reality is it already is one.
What we “like” isn’t always the same as what we need.
But then who’s working for who?
Since Facebook is a UGC (user-generated content) platform, you literally produce the content of their website, which they then use as advertising space. Without you posting selfies with kale cucumber smoothies, there’s no webpage to attach ads to in the first place. Moreover — and a lot of us may not realize this — every move you make, every breath you take, they’ve been watching you. Ever notice the ads following you around the internet? Facebook knows which headphones you were looking at on Amazon, right? Facebook aggregates all your personal information — your age, school, what football team you support, etc. — and compiles this into saleable character profiles for marketing companies. And what’s more, because of how ubiquitous and almost necessary using Facebook has become, it has “brand enclosure,” so companies can rely on people using it way into the future. Companies pay rent for your attention, and guess what: your life is the billboard.
Obviously, to talk about posting photos online as part of some factory production line seems a bit extreme because we use the platform voluntarily. It’s part of our leisure time. Yet increasingly the division between leisure and labor is unclear. I check my work email when I wake up to go to the bathroom, and I find myself going to events because I know I need to be “seen” there for my job. Sometimes I feel like I am living to work, rather than the other way around. When does lunch become a meeting? When does a dinner snap become a commercial? The logic of advertisement has insinuated itself so deeply into our collective consciousness that the line between life and lifestyle has blurred beyond recall.
And it’s more than just seeing ads. We install wants in one another by showing how #fulfilled, #blessed and #grateful we become through these lifestyle choices and purchases. We produce the content that Facebook marketizes and then dutifully consume the fruits of each other’s labor, creating and satisfying demand simultaneously.
So we work for Facebook but it seems like Facebook isn’t working for us. If Facebook’s not connecting us, then Zuckerberg and co. aren’t keeping their side of the bargain. We’re making them money as we grow isolated and estranged from one another.
If Facebook’s not connecting us, then Zuckerberg and co. aren’t keeping their side of the bargain.
Hope is not lost, however. Like some of you, I didn’t understand half this stuff about EdgeRank, relevance, and the echo chamber six months ago. Raising awareness of the constructedness of our digital landscapes and the decisions behind them is the first step. Then, maybe it would be a good thing if the algorithm included a certain amount of “otherness” and “difference” into our newsfeeds — just so that we know about it and even if we don’t strictly “like” it. So for every article that leans one way, the algorithm could include one that leans the opposite direction. You got that, @mosseri? Otherwise, there are alternative social media platforms out there. Ello, for instance, brands itself as a network for “creators” and has no data harvesting and no ads.
I’m not seriously expecting to be paid for my Facebook use (though I’m open), but surely we should expect a communication technology that is actually and meaningfully connecting people. If all we hear are our own voices echoing back at us, then clearly we’ll become disconnected from one another and our wider communities. Which isn’t exactly a vision of a “social” network, is it? Personally, I’d be excited to have a platform that puts me behind another’s eyes or, at the very least, makes me aware of their position. Otherwise using Facebook starts to resemble living in a gated community — you can grow so detached from people that you forget they’re out there. And slowly, before you realize, you start to think your TV’s broken because it’s not playing the voice in your head.