Every so often, someone throws up the R word (it’s in the title), and businesses are called on to justify their existence beyond maximizing revenue and profits. Facebook has been put in the public crosshairs a few times this past year. There are concerns that Facebook is manipulating its user’s emotions, that its ads are uncomfortably well-targeted, and, most recently, that Facebook dumbs us down by showing us spammy, substance-free garbage. On the last issue, Facebook has announced its plan to reduce its link-baiting content from sources such as Buzzfeed and Distractify.
There are plenty of legitimate gripes about Facebook. The research is pretty clear on the power of Facebook to make us feel alone rather than connected. The site is surely addictive, and it really is our responsibility to avoid being on it all day. Wait, I think I’m jumping the gun on my main point. Let’s dig into the Buzzfeed issue and try to apply a reasonable standard, gripes aside.
Why is my newsfeed full of articles like “17 Animals That Are Not OK With Sweater Weather" (no, I will NOT link to that)? Facebook has a complex newsfeed algorithm based on likes/shares/comments and the poster’s relationship to you. We see spammy content because this is what a lot of our friends, even the smart ones, like to read when they are browsing. The algorithm would begin to phase the junk out, if you didn’t like it a little bit as well.
This is where the R word comes in. First are my arguments against a social responsibility for better content:
If Upworthy puts more eyeballs on Facebook for longer, it is good from a shareholder’s perspective. Surely we don’t apply a standard of right and wrong in industries like, for example, cleaning products or batteries or appliances. In most industries we applaud rather than complain when an innovation wins out. For the Menlo Park, California company to alter its newsfeed would be a significant exception to its goal of maximizing user engagement (and by extension, ad dollars). Maybe this strategy might be more profitable from a user experience perspective in the long run. Yet, if we assume the company has smart decision makers (it certainly has the money to hire them), we wouldn’t need critics to demand a change based on responsibility when self-interest would suffice. The content is here because, by and large, we like it. All hail Buzzfeed, the new leader in journalism. Let’s not impose our higher ideals on other Facebookers and instead let live.
And by know I bet you're jumping out of your seat waiting to give me counterarguments, in favor of Facebook’s social responsibility:
The social media industry has switching costs so great that it does not function properly (what are you going to do, use Google+?). Financial pressures encourage Facebook to think short term as opposed to long term. We can acknowledge behavioral scientists who show that small corrections can “nudge” people to much better decisions (we could demand a limit to linkbait, or use a more creative approach such as making link font be smaller and red and have a disapproving emoticon next to it. See mandatory nutrition facts - shame works). In these cases, a course correction could be in both the public and private good. At some point can’t we call a spade a spade and say Distractify is a bad influence?
Yes, I believe we can say pretty objectively that reading spam is worse for society than staying informed. Businesses, even armed with tons of data, do not always produce the best products. Part of the problem is Facebook’s fault, because people (myself included) have limited self-control and will click on, read and eat what is in front of them.
Also, maybe we shouldn’t look businesses to be our saviors. Just as you wouldn’t demand Kellogg to make Poptarts healthy or Sony’s Playstation help you get fit, we shouldn’t demand a social media company be not something it is not.
Facebook is not the New York Times. My main point is that we should not wait and expect Facebook to act in the public good, and instead should look inward to improve our habits.
For those who believe thinking and learning is important, what could we do instead? We can unfollow spammy sites (or spammy friends) in our newsfeeds, unsubscribe to our junky sources, and shame ourselves to consciously avoid clicking on what we know is a waste of time. The same consciousness can apply to Facebook.com as a whole. Set a (clear and public) limit of how much you will visit unproductive sites without first doing what you need to do. We can and should adopt a growth mindset and say, “I have the capacity to change and make reasoned decisions” so that we keep Buzzfeed to a sometimes snack. I still believe in us.
What do you think? What should Facebook *have* to do? What should it *want* to do? I appreciate everyone’s thoughts.
*This post is strongly influenced by the tech strategy podcast Exponent. If you like this topic, check it out here.