In a sharp article that takes a curious turn at the end, Derek Thompson discusses the Facebook News Feed and how it’s influenced by users. The broader and more important point speaks to the role of Facebook as a news source and how it shapes the public’s attention on important issues and conversations.
The News Feed is perhaps the world’s most sophisticated mirror of its readers’ preferences—and it’s fairly clear that news isn’t one of them. We simply prefer stories that fulfill the very purpose of Facebook’s machine-learning algorithm, to show us a reflection of the person we’d like to be, to make us feel, to make us smile, and, most simply, to remind us of ourselves.
In Thompson’s view, since each user has the power to alter her News Feed, we can conclude that evocative and emotional stories are extremely popular on Facebook because users prefer engaging with these stories. We choose to like and share this kind of content and we prefer it over traditional journalism and “hard” news. Thompson believes that Facebook has become a portal to entertainment-focused stories because that’s what users actually want to consume.
The problem I see in this line of reasoning is how little attention is paid to Facebook’s own control of the algorithms that determine what users see. In Thompson’s essay he makes it seem as if users have full power to create the News Feed just because a user can friend/de-friend and follow certain pages. But I think Thompson confuses the ability to alter the News Feed with transparency and control over it. Except for Facebook employees, nobody knows what the News Feed algorithms look like. Thompson also fails to acknowledge that even machine-learning algorithms were created by humans and contain very human biases both unintentional and by design (which news sources are favored/what kind of behavior determines that a user actually likes a story).
Facebook’s interest is to maximize user engagement. By measuring likes, shares, and comments, the company is improving ways to keep us on the News Feed. But I think the question “How best to retain the audience?” is different from “What are the deeper preferences for consuming news?” Thompson, however, thinks they are the same.