When Facebook changed its algorithm, did users really benefit?
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has outlined changes aimed at improving personal interactions on the social network, at the potential cost of the overall time people spend on the platform. (Photo: AFP/LLUIS GENE)
Source: Chew Hui Min
There was a collective gasp across newsrooms and marketing departments when Facebook decided to change its algorithm to focus less on news and brands, and more on friends and family.
On Jan 11, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook that one of the social media giant's "big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent".
Facebook's goal will no longer be helping users “find relevant content”, but helping them "have more meaningful social interaction". Posts from businesses, brands and media are "crowding out the personal moments" for users, he said.
"The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being," he wrote.
"We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long-term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos - even if they're entertaining or informative - may not be as good."
Many businesses and media outlets were concerned that their reach and visibility online would be affected if referral traffic on Facebook, which has grown over the years, diminishes.
There are already reams of stories, blog posts and commentaries out there on what this change might mean for your website, business or marketing department - articles which may not appear on my Facebook news feed anymore, but which Google willingly dished up in nanoseconds.
Social media influencers seem to think that they, as "personal brands", will gain the upper hand after this latest tweak. And the first reaction from brands, businesses and media? To get you to add them as Facebook friends and "see them first".
Not that they had many options open to them. Facebook often dishes out algorithm tweaks, sometimes without an announcement, so reading the tea leaves of what might work, then adapting their strategy is the best they can do.
CHASING EYEBALLS, FENDING OFF FAKE NEWS
The trigger for all this is likely Facebook’s concern that it will soon run into regulatory issues concerning the use of platforms like Facebook to deliberately spread fake news and manipulate public opinion, experts said.
Following the 2016 US election, fingers were pointed at Facebook and how it propagated bias and hyperbole by prioritising user engagement over ensuring news on its platforms were verified. Some said that the Internet and social media fed people what they wanted to read, creating "filter bubbles" and echo chambers that entrenched them in their positions and deepened political fault lines.
Governments, including authorities in Singapore, are increasingly concerned about how falsehoods can spread online more quickly, and how these can used as a tool to influence politics and elections.
Facebook itself has reported that it has identified thousands of posts and paid advertisements placed by Russia-based operatives, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections. It also estimates that many as 126 million Americans may have seen content uploaded by Russian-based agents over the past two years.
Facebook has also come under attack by watchdogs and regulators, amid concerns about its collection of user habits and data for advertisement targeting.
So, with this change, Facebook hopes to advance a step ahead of regulators by fixing its feed first.
As a digital journalist who monitors the ebb and flow of news stories, their page views and rankings nearly every day, it is clear that other than major announcements that affect our daily lives or disasters, the stories that get the most engagement on Facebook are the offbeat, the tearjerkers and at times, the grotesque.
If there are sensational stories or a quack cure, more likely than not, one of your friends or family has passed it along - with little thought and no ill-intent; but like an undetected virus, the news has spread.
Recall the recent "kidnapping scares": Unverified reports which were being spread via messaging services and social media led to people jumping to their own conclusions, which then required statements from the police and news reports to debunk.
So while Zuckerberg has also declared that his other focus in 2018 is to prioritise news that is "trustworthy, informative, and local", it's not clear how Facebook will, or if it can, burst the bubbles of reality people create for themselves in an already polarised world.
It's clear too that a listed company worth billions must have thought through carefully the business considerations of such a move. Other reasons other than users' well-being have been posited for the shift.
Dr Adrian Yeow, senior lecturer at the School of Business at the Singapore University of Social Sciences says Facebook is likely re-focusing on what it is selling – eyeballs, or the attention and engagement of its users.
"There may be a trend among users who are losing patience with Facebook ... Given that the 'eyeballs' may be losing interest or getting turned off by the blatant monetisation of their time and attention, Facebook has to address this," he said.
Let’s revisit this idea that Facebook’s intent is for us to have more meaningful social interactions.
The thing is - if we need Facebook to help us have more meaningful social interactions, then we are truly forlorn. A couple of likes for our holiday snaps may induce a blip of joy but the holiday itself should be the main thing for most people (unless they happen to be social media influencers on a job).
What Zuckerberg also fails to mention is that one way that people can have more meaningful social interactions is to spend less time on Facebook and more time talking to the people around them.
Facebook’s "likes" have been called "dopamine hits" and compared to addictive drugs.
Last October, the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button, Justin Rosenstein, warned of the “constant distraction” that has resulted from addictive technology in an interview with The Guardian. He is one of a number of social media pioneers who have voiced such concerns recently.
Facebook has been tweaking and adjusting its algorithm to maximise clicks, engagement and monetise its platform for years, to the point where some users feel that their news feed is now an endless scroll of mindless videos and clickbait.
And so what if I see more posts from friends and family? Is perving on people you have a tenuous connection with that much more meaningful?
It could also raise problematic questions like: Why didn't we get invited to that wedding that our former colleague posted on Facebook? How come I didn't get that many likes for that really artistic shot of my avocado toast?
Social interactions, online or otherwise, are a source of joy as well as anxiety for most people. Whether Facebook’s algorithmic prescription for our well-being will work? It’s really hard to say, partly because we don’t really know the details of the changes that are being made.
People think of algorithms as computer code, but what they embody are rules - made by humans, said Dr Lim Wee Kiat, research fellow at NTU's Asian Business Case Centre.
"Embedded in them are social norms and ethics, so it may make sense to consult the broader community rather than allow a few companies to decide on such 'social nudging'," said Dr Lim, who is one of the authors of Living Digital 2040: Future of work, education and healthcare.
“I hope that algorithms companies use will be subject to more scrutiny and reflect more of society’s norms rather than purely meet the companies’ ends.”
At this point, it seems there is little hope of that happening and it may be better to just take matters into our own hands.
Facebook does facilitate connections, but if prioritising comments rather than shares or likes is the extent to which it can deepen our interactions, it seems a futile gesture.
So if you really want to connect with your loved ones this year, just get offline and start doing so. But wait, there's this really cute otter video that I, like, have to see first.