Facebook recently announced that they are tweaking their news feed algorithm to give us less of what we don’t want and more of what we do. Ostensibly, this will include showing us less of the content we don’t really want to see.
How? By reducing the content that publishers like Buzzfeed are able to shove into our newsfeed on their own. That last part is important, because you’ll still see all of the Buzzfeed clickbait stories that your friend Jeff relentlessly shares every morning as he chugs his grande sugar free latte.
And that, my friends, is the inherent problem with algorithms. Whether you are using Facebook or Google or Amazon or any other modern online service, what you see is largely dictated by (a) what the masses want to see and (b) what you’ve looked at in the past.
Click on a story on Yahoo (still one of the most visited sites on the internet, believe it or not), and you’ll see what I mean. Their algorithm will immediately expand the news feed to include four more articles that are just like the article you just read or the video you just watched – sometimes exactly the same.
One of my wife’s aunts constantly shares pre-made posts about all sorts of things, from small dogs to recipes prominently featuring Velveeta to nostalgic visuals of toys from the 1960s – but she recently shared something that stood out to me. It was another pre-made graphic, but it said something like “I am part of the 10% of the world who has never seen Game of Thrones. Hit Like if you are too!”
The fact that somebody felt strongly enough about this issue to fire up Photoshop and build a graphic about it indicates that there are at least a few folks out here who are sick and tired of their newsfeed being clogged with the latest fan theories about Westeros and photos of Kit Harrington’s oddly permed hair. But as long as all of her friends are talking about GOT, my wife’s aunt will be doomed to watch their exchanges, even though she has no interest in the program itself.
Not only do algorithms encourage this “forced democracy,” they discourage you from coming across new ideas. Companies like StumbleUpon (they call themselves a discovery engine instead of a search engine) offer alternatives, but for now, they are few and far between. Instead, we get big data making choices about what we really want to see instead of using their teams of developers to actually let us choose what we want to see.
The number of personal stories posted on Facebook has dropped 21% in the past year or so. And yet your newsfeed hasn’t gotten any shorter, meaning it’s filled with 21% more shares of news stories, celebrity makeup videos, sponsored content and overall flotsam and jetsam.
Algorithms are letting us down, and I for one hope that we can inject a little more heart into the web. Perhaps this decision by Facebook is the first step, but I doubt it. Ironically, I think that real change will need to come from the proletariat themselves, a revolution that I can’t wait to be a part of.