The Online Journal of Writer Kate Sykes
When Mark Zuckerberg first hatched his idea for what would become Facebook, he may not have known how the farm animals would fit in, but it’s pretty clear now. We are the farm animals.
Like the cows and pigs in Old MacDonald’s menagerie, Facebook users need constant feedings to keep them moo-mooing and oink-oinking–and they’re not going to feed themselves.
That’s where News Feed comes in. A ceaseless conveyor belt of status updates, photos, comments, queries, replies, events, and advertisements, News Feed makes it easy to see what your friends are up to, touch base with them and share your own news. No need to write a letter. No answering a hundred different emails. No phone calls. You just step up to the trough and let Facebook feed you.
“Users are usually pretty lazy. They’re not really willing to jump through a lot of hoops to do most things,” says Ari Steinberg, an early Facebook engineer and former manager of the News Feed team.
What appears in your feed is determined partly by what you say you’re hungry for, what your friends are gobbling up, and what the farmers at Facebook want you to eat. As Facebook’s bread and butter, the company takes great care to keep News Feed functioning in such a way that will keep users coming back for more.
When Facebook tweaks their News Feed algorithm it has the power to bring certain stories to the fore while quieting others. It’s pretty obvious even to the casual Facebook user, for instance, that the News Feed prioritizes new profile photos. I always see when a friend uploads a new one, even if I haven’t interacted with that friend for years. When I upload one, it gets ten times more likes and comments than any other type of post.
Facebook understands how to stroke our egos. It also knows when the animals are getting restless. The company recently announced it was introducing changes to the algorithm that would prioritize posts by friends and family and quiet posts by publishers. On the surface, this seems like a step forward not only for social media, but also for democracy. Facebook and other social media sites have played a crucial role in fueling recent popular uprisings such as Arab spring, Occupy, Nuit Debout and the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which were all subject to blackouts by the corporate media.
But is following the herd any better than being led by the nose? Maybe not. When our algorithm-powered social networks, search engines and news feeds determine what we read, think, feel and understand about the world, we enclose ourselves in an ideological bubble that blinds us to everything beyond the familiar and “likable.” Living in a bubble erodes our empathy, removes the need for compromise and has serious implications for the future of democracy.
The unintended consequence of Facebook’s algorithmic feed generator may be that, instead of bringing us together, it’s actually isolating us. The question remains how long the ruminants will be content to chew cud.