I turned 26 this week, meaning in my life I’ve been able to vote in a handful of General Elections, some local elections and a little thing called the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union – which you may have heard about lately. Never in my life as a legal voter though has the result gone the way I wanted, or, for that matter, for any of my fellow millennial friends – all despite Facebook convincing us otherwise.
It’s not just Facebook either to be honest, Twitter – or at least my Twitter – is by design more leftist and liberal and often whips itself into a frenzy of almost certainty before being totally blind-sided by Little Britain’s actual ballot. (Remember the so-called “three horse race” where Nick Clegg was supposed to come from behind and steal the show in 2010? What a load of bollocks that turned out to be.) But for now, let’s focus on Facebook because there’s a very specific thing going on here – algorithms.
Algorithms are digital-speak for systems and processes that work to show relevant content to specific users based on a number of factors. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm works in very a clever way. Every time a piece of content is published on the platform, Facebook ascribes a rank to it, but this rank is relative to each and every one of Facebook’s 1.23bn users. There are (broadly) three parts to this rank calculation: affinity, weight and time.
Affinity is the kudos given to the relationship you have with the publisher (your friend, your mum, your newspaper, KimK). If you regularly engage with their content, share it and like it, Facebook gives their content a higher affinity scoring for you. Weight is the same thing, but Facebook isn’t scoring your relationship with a publisher but instead your penchant for a type of content. Are you a sucker for a video or prefer a long-read? Do you like to see yourself tagged in albums or prefer posts with click-able links? Lastly there’s time decay. Based on how active your newsfeed is, posts won’t hang around forever. All these factors (and others) come together to help Facebook decide in what order it should display content to you in the newsfeed and when it should surface it.
All these whirring cogs and big words have been the staple of Facebook’s money-making machine for the last decade or so, helping the social network become the dominant force in social communications and a $50bn business to boot. But, are these algorithms thinking about our needs as social beings with a thirst for communications or as consumers with a value to silicon valley (where all the big US tech companies are based)?
For as long as I’ve worked in social media (all my working life) I’ve upheld the opinion that things like Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm (and others like Google Search’s) are the Internet’s way of getting rid of the noise and helping make things better for you. A Facebook that’s filled with irrelevant chatter isn’t a platform billions want to use (just ask Twitter and their dwindling user-base), instead Facebook takes its cue from you and shows you what you want to see instead. It’s superb, really.
But, when it comes down to it, on Facebook, we’re trapped in a bubble, a tiny little corner of the infinite possibilities the internet presents and it’s suffocating our minds. Facebook’s telling us, quite literally, what we want to hear – and only that. It wants to keep us happy and keep us refreshing the newsfeed, it wants to keep us on Facebook because that’s the only way it can make money from us. As long as we’re being shown things that reaffirm our prejudices, speak to our political allegiances and (let’s be honest) contain cats doing silly things, we’re also consuming paid-for content and the tills are ringing at Facebook HQ. We’re the flying fatties in Disney’s Wall-e.
I used to think there was an equilibrium in the algorithm, that our need for hand-holding around the internet and Facebook’s need to generate income could coexist in harmony, but instead we’ve ended up with a narrower and narrower view of the world via one newsfeed on our mobile phones and it’s not challenging us enough to look away and find things out for ourselves. I don’t think it’s healthy.
Twitter, in an ironic twist, is the antithesis of this. It’s just simply a chronological stream of conciousness from the tweeters you follow – no prejudice or hierarchy (save the “what you missed” feature and promoted tweets). But, it’s turning people off because tweeters we followed when we first joined aren’t relevant anymore and it’s a ball-ache to cleanse your feed manually. Similarly celebs are making a thing of ditching Twitter because they can’t handle the trolls, signalling a major shift from the brutal realities of democratising the world’s voice on the web and running away to hide from nasties in the comfort and safety of Facebook and their algorithms.
Read more on what Eli Pariser calls the filter bubble here.
What do you think? @jordanjmcdowell