Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s front-page editor now. That’s the real problem

Bob Sullivan

Mark Zuckerberg never set out to be the world’s editor in chief, but here we are.  And sorry Mark, you are a terrible front page editor.

Hearings in Congress today dug into the weeds of why Americans feel like social media is letting them down — it was a ready-made tool for Russian election interference; it’s now silencing some voices based on vague criteria, and so on.  But these aren’t aren’t THE problem. They are just symptoms.

Two thirds of Americans get their news from social media today. Most from their Facebook wall. That’s s a very, very small window through which to see the world.  Worse yet, most of them don’t know how social media really works.  Pew just released a study showing a majority have no idea how stories are selected for Facebook’s news feed. And don’t believe they have any influence over what appears there.

That’s THE problem.

Fairly recently, a consumer reading a newspaper who didn’t like what was on the front page could do something simple, but now seems revolutionary — she could turn the page.  Over and over.  And within 10 minutes or so, she’d be exposed to hundreds of stories, neatly organized in sections.  If she were really smart, she might do this with three or four papers. More to the point, she had a pretty good understanding of why those headlines and those stories appeared in those sections.

Today, we scroll.  A supercomputer designed to hack our attention span optimizes that “front page” for “engagement,” with the goal of hypnotizing you into sticking around. There’s no sections, no priorities. Only click-bait.  And whatever Facebook has decided is important to the hypnotics that month (Live video! Puppies!) If a good story doesn’t click with the first few folks who see it, it’s dismissed into the long tail of Internet oblivion, destined to be a tree that’s fallen silently in an empty forest. This story, I’d think, will be a good candidate for that scrap heap.

I don’t begrudge that (ok, of course I do. Facebook’s algorithm changes have killed my website in recent months).  But I found this piece of Pew’s most recent survey the most troubling: Facebook offers token tools for adjusting what’s on users’ front pagea, but even these are rarely used. Fully two-thirds of users have never even tried to influence the content on their news feed. Of course, the older users get, the less likely they’ve taken an active step to change their feed, such unfollowing groups or asking that certain friends be prioritized. (Please choose “see more” of me.)

In other words, news consumption in America is dangerously passive.  And Mark Z is the most powerful front page editor in history.

This is not what Facebook set out to do; I genuinely think many at the company are horrified by this state of affairs.  I am one who believes it is an existential threat to the company — it’s very far from the Mark’s core expertise. And users will eventually revolt. In a separate Pew survey, researchers found that 42% of users had taken some kind of Facebook break recently. And 26% said they had deleted the app from their phone. Those numbers seem awfully high to me, but you get the point.  People sort of hate Facebook now for what it’s done to their lives.  That’s not a great business model.

And it’s getting worse. As Facebook works frantically to save itself, and to diffuse the bomb it’s been turned into, news feed is often shrunken. Puppy photos are back on top; interesting news stories (like this one!) are out.  Users see an even smaller selection of “follows” when they look.  You might have 500 friends, but only 25 of them appear in your feed, urban legends and empirical evidence tells us.

Why are we really here? Since the beginning of time, Facebook has refused to offer an unfiltered option that would simply list every post from every friend.  When a software maker invented a third-party app to make such a raw feed, Facebook forced it to shut down. Users would be overwhelmed by so many posts, the firm believes.  News feed must be edited.  And so, here we are.

Yes, in some ways, we did this to ourselves.  Nothing stops Americans from visiting SeattleTimes.com on their own, instead of relying on the news feed (or Google News) for their headlines. Heaven forbid, we could actually subscribe to a newspaper, too.  But, as I began this piece, here we are.  The world’s most efficient tool for connecting human beings, one of the Internet’s original killer app, has killed our curiosity.  We’re devolving into digital-made tribes, only listening to the 25 or so people who make the front page of our lives.

As the saying goes, you made this mess, Mark. You have to clean it up.

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