Into the Mirror: How Facebook is turning into Facebook

Facebook’s new focus on “high quality content” and its efforts to promote the idea of the platform as a news source in recent months is a pretty significant change in direction for the social network. Can it work? Judging by its efforts with News Feed, I’m not very optimistic.

The company’s stated goal for the product, as stated in the first of its News Feed FYI entries, is nothing if not ambitious:

The goal of News Feed is to deliver the right content to the right people at the right time so they don’t miss the stories that are important to them. Ideally, we want News Feed to show all the posts people want to see in the order they want to read them.

This feed will be populated with the aforementioned “high quality content,” the new algorithm for which is only vaguely defined as a new machine learning system that apparently uses more than 1,000 different factors and was informed by responses to user surveys with questions such as:

  • Is this timely and relevant content?
  • Is this content from a source you would trust?
  • Would you share it with friends or recommend it to others?
  • Is the content genuinely interesting to you or is it trying to game News Feed distribution? (e.g., asking for people to like the content)
  • Would you call this a low quality post or meme?
  • Would you complain about seeing this content in your News Feed?

It also takes user inputs into account: how often I interact with a friend/page; likes, shares and comments by my friends and others; how much I’ve interacted with different types of posts; and if people are hiding or reporting certain posts. Seems a little overly complex, but reasonable enough.

Too bad it works like crap.

Scrolling through my News Feed, there is not a single story I want to click on or interact with. Why am I being shown the new profile picture of someone I worked at the mall with in 2005 and haven’t seen or spoken to since? What about these status updates from a guy I was in Cub Scouts with and haven’t seen since middle school and who only friended me because that’s what you did when you got Facebook during freshman year of college?

Because it was my birthday three weeks ago and they wrote on my wall because that’s what you do on Facebook.

For the other dozen people I don’t really care about in my feed, their only “interaction” with me in the last year or so was when I liked one of their statuses because I thought it would be some kind of nice gesture when they popped up in my News Feed for some unknown reason.

You begin to see the difficulty of delivering high-quality content with an algorithm-driven feed that’s based on the data from a social network I’ve used in a totally different way for the past nine years.

I decided to try to improve my News Feed by using the options attached to each individual story in the feed, and that’s when things started to get interesting, in a kind morbid and depressing way:

newsfeed008

I chose “I don’t want to see this,”  but News Feed couldn’t just leave it at that. It wanted to know why. The responses it offered said a lot about Facebook’s idea of what a valuable News Feed experience is:newsfeed001

If a post isn’t interesting, it’s annoying. And if that’s the case, should it also not be on Facebook? What else do you think shouldn’t be on Facebook? (I’d probably nix the delivery room photos.) I can understand those two responses, and spam is obvious, but “It’s about me and I don’t like it” is a pretty sad statement about how many people use the social network to bully and harass others. I went with annoying/not interesting.

newsfeed003

This is starting to feel like a trip to the therapist. A very blunt therapist. I didn’t care about posts from this person, but judging by the other options, Facebook clearly knows what users don’t like to see even as it struggles to figure out what they do want to see.

newfeed002

What is there to resolve? I wasn’t interested in their post and now you want me to write them a note telling them why I think they’re boring? Are we done yet? Why was this such a long and drawn-out process? Let me just take the survey so I don’t have to do this for every post.

newsfeed006

What do you mean by “posts like this”? Posts from the Wall Street Journal? Posts from this person I went to college with? From other people I went to college with? Posts about Starbucks? I like the WSJ, Starbucks is OK, and I’m not in really touch with this person anymore. Which one of those things am I agreeing to? Pass. And I might as well just pass on the rest of them too since “neither” is pretty much the same as the 50-50 chance I have of getting less of what I want and more of what I don’t.

The whole ordeal left me kind of disappointed in Facebook. With all the data they’ve collected from me and about me over the past nine years, they still need to manually extract this much information from me and give me surveys just to put give me a home page I don’t hate?

Of course, I could spend a lot of time “interacting” with Facebook and my News Feed, liking and sharing and commenting and going through the interminable process of hiding posts over and over, but that’s a big ask. Especially when there’s no guarantee that I’m going to like what I get on the other end.

And so I’m going to continue spending more time on the platforms and sites where I’m more engaged because I’m getting the content I actively seek out.

I’ll still keep my Facebook account active, but more and more I’ll be using it like an old printed facebook to look up people and to contact ones I may have fallen out of touch with.

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