GLOBAL. Do you enjoy these adorable meme photos popping up in your Facebook News Feed? If so, sorry to hear that. They may soon disappear.
As Facebook makes it periodic changes, we have all learned to accept them—more or less eagerly. Remember the outraged response to the mandatory switch to Facebook Timeline in 2012? This change, along with many others in layout, settings, privacy controls, and technical features, on this beloved social network site have often come at a price. They force us users to acquire new literacies. We have to re-learn how to manage our data and our contacts. Often, we have to get acquainted with a new structure that we did not ask for.
This month, Facebook announced new changes to their newsfeed algorithm. It is allegedly implemented to meet our desire for higher quality content. In particular, the new algorithm aims at helping users “staying current on the latest news, whether it’s about their favorite celebrity or what’s happening in the world”. This ignores that viral stories and inane photos generate exceptionally large interest among the Facebook community.
In other words, Facebook is trying to turn its News Feed into a new “daily me”—a highly personalized digital newspaper, in which we are all editors and gatekeepers. The idea is that we won’t feel the urge to leave the site to keep up-to-date with what’s happening in the world.
Facebook is not very articulate in describing how the new News Feed differentiates between high and low quality content. In general, the algorithm pays attention to how often articles from the News Feed are clicked on, especially from Facebook mobile. Based upon these data, the company is looking at ways to show us more similar articles—articles we should supposedly like. This algorithm is what Amazon and Netflix already do for books and movies. As a result, memes and such are considered “low quality news”, and will be less frequently featured on your News Feed.
But what may be the consequences of such a shift? Primarily, we will spend even more time on Facebook. The changes promote more website time and limit accessing meme photos “hosted somewhere other than Facebook.” Perhaps, we will also start considering Facebook’s News Feed highbrow conversation, forgetting that the algorithm may not necessarily provide complete, detailed, and multifaceted accounts of current information. Therefore, we risk moving further away from diversified knowledge and increasingly towards news that confirms our beliefs and prejudices.
Not surprisingly, Facebook suggests that the change was implemented to meet users’ request to access higher quality and more relevant information. And yet, they forgot to mention that the change, once established, will make us spend more time on the network, and boost its commercial value and power.
Furthermore, the algorithm is a new strategy to collect data. Facebook already knows everything about our friends and family, the music we like, our high school sweethearts, and everything else. So now, with the new News Feed, Facebook may be looking at ways to improve its data collection practices for targeted advertising.
However, what Facebook may glean from this data remains unclear. Will Facebook learn more about our political affiliations, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences? Will innocuous clicks give away more information than we could ever imagine?
Once again, the strength of Facebook may be its ability to direct our attention towards the quality of the information on the website, and away from practices of profitable data collection and related privacy costs.
Regardless of how we feel about the changes, the new News Feed is not an opt-in feature. Therefore, the only option for avoiding this data collection trap is to stop clicking, sharing, connecting, being social—essentially, stop using Facebook. Yet, unfortunately, this is not a neutral option.