Facebook, as it announced last week with a stock-sinking splash, is changing what you see when you’re on Facebook. Now, according to Adam Mosseri, the company’s news feed chief, you’re more likely to see posts from friends and family than from pages you follow, like from media outlets, your favorite record labels, or businesses and nonprofits. The point is to increase “meaningful” interaction on the site, a metric that Facebook says can be measured by the number of comments on a post. While you’ll still see news (whether shared by friends or from an organization’s page), the company says it’s less interested in “passive” forms of activity on the site, like reading headlines and articles without lunging into comments sections.
One way of interpreting all of this is that Facebook is in a way returning to its roots—a place where people shared photos and snippets of their lives, not a hornet’s nest of click-bait, conspiracy theories, and possibly Russia-concocted fake news. Another is that Facebook thinks the news is bumming out too many of the people who spend their days on its platform, and it wants less to do with it. Then there’s the purely mercenary explanation: Facebook’s growth in bringing on new users has been in a rather steady decline since its peak around 2011, which could be read as evidence that the platform’s evolution into a hub for news in the years since has stunted its potential appeal.
It may be true that it will ultimately be good for the media to break some of its Facebook-stoked habits, even if the industry also endures some short-term suffering, as my colleague Will Oremus argues. But for a lot of us—not just those of us who enjoy finding news on Facebook—it will also mean more posts from people we happen to be “friends” with but also happen to find really, really boring. Some of us liked breaking up all those photos of toddlers and complaints about Comcast service with current events, even if the latter happened to have been grown in a St. Petersburg troll farm.
Certainly, Facebook doesn’t undertake a major overhaul of its products without extensive research, and the company probably knows the exact type of posts that will keep people engaged on Facebook, time that it monetizes by selling targeted ads. (Still, Wall Street seems convinced the changes will result in people spending less time on Facebook, and the company has said that’s one likely result.) But I wonder if Facebook could be underestimating how deeply uninteresting—obnoxious, even—many people find the comments posted by their friends and family on the site and how useful they find information supplied by organizations’ Facebook pages.
First, the grating part: Long-winded posts and comments from ill-informed people I barely talk to anymore are some of the main reasons I’ve stopped using Facebook as much in recent years. I don’t have to time to correct these people, and I’m not interested in reading their comments on the articles I’ve shared, particularly when they take it as an opportunity to prove that they too have a college degree. Especially bad are acquaintances who use Facebook to perpetuate prejudicial stereotypes. If Facebook is going to boost the types of posts that spark passionate discussions, no matter the quality of said discussion, I may find myself logging on even less.
For a lot of us, some of the “personal” content Facebook wants to boost isn’t much better. It is fine that so many people use the platform to share how sad they are, or what a hard day they’re having, or how happy they are, or how awesome their life is. If people are having a hard time, it makes sense to reach out to friends for a jolt of positive feeling from their likes or encouraging comments. I’ve certainly done it. But if Facebook incentivizes this kind of self-narration even more, I fear people will start to lean on the company for interaction and affirmation in ways that are probably not healthy. Maybe that means sharing even more intimate details of their lives online. Though Facebook is fairly private in the sense that you can adjust who does and does not see your posts, there’s nothing stopping anyone from screenshotting your more personal missives and sharing them elsewhere. Nor do we really know what Facebook could do in the future with the information we share. The company could, for example, help to tailor ads to people based on the emotional state revealed through their posts.
Of course, not everyone’s Facebook is the same. And the company wouldn’t be successful if lots of people didn’t use it to interact with their personal networks in edifying ways. But that’s not the only use case.
In some other universe, perhaps there is an idyllic Facebook where everyone is able to share glimpses of their lives and be rewarded with feelings of connection and goodwill. That might be what Facebook would like to achieve—a safe space bubbled off from our toxic, demoralizing news cycles. Eliminating incentives for publishers to game Facebook might offer some respite from our depressing, never-ceasing politics, but bluntly emphasizing the personal does nothing to improve the ways individuals, not news organizations, choose to use Facebook. If the platform can’t do that, I’d rather have a news feed that balances my friends’ personal missives with other kinds of content.
Facebook’s demotion of posts that come from organizations of all types is, in a sense, an attempt to depoliticize the platform. But Facebook has become a central tool for political organizing and messaging that many people do find meaningful. It’s how activists assemble rallies and how nonprofits share articles about whatever issue concerns them. It’s how vulnerable groups get together to support one another—and find allies whom they may not know personally. Decreasing the visibility of those posts means people who looked to Facebook to stay informed on issues outside their personal lives may have to turn elsewhere to stay plugged in.
If you’re in the camp of people who primarily saw Facebook as a place to learn about interesting or important news and information from the media and organizations and companies you follow, prepare for a less useful—and possibly more annoying—experience. You may even join the club of people who see Facebook as nothing more than a glorified address book for staying loosely connected to people from your past, scrolling to maintain an ambient sense of where they now work and what kid they’re on. But only, that is, if you don’t end up giving up on Facebook altogether.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus