Before you freak out, that 29% figure is not scientific. It’s from research conducted by the Washington Post’s Tom Herrera, who last summer counted all the posts his Facebook friends produced in a 24-hour period and cross-referenced them with what appeared in his News Feed. No one outside Facebook knows how the News Feed algorithm actually works, since gaming it is a multimillion-dollar industry. But the old Facebook, where you friended people and then saw everything they shared on a homepage, has been defunct since 2008. The new Facebook tracks your behavior on the site and customizes your News Feed to show you only what you really care about—in my case, baby pictures and articles about catcalling.
I didn’t think that babies and street harassment were my primary interests, but apparently Facebook knows me better than I know myself. I do read those catcalling articles, sometimes. But I have never clicked on a picture of a baby, and I keep a growing list of publications I don’t read—HuffPo, TPM, Jezebel, The Daily Kos—because Facebook showed them to me often enough that I noticed how bad they are. If Facebook’s News Feed is so finely tuned to my desires, how come I hate it?
Herrera reports a similar experience. When he started examining his News Feed, he found his algorithmic preferences differed markedly from what he thought he liked:
Here’s what I learned about myself: It seems I don’t much care about my hometown or the people in it, I’m far more interested in feminist blogs than I am in technology or sports, I’m still hung up on New York after moving away last spring, and I’m apparently very interested in the goings on of someone I worked with at Pizza Hut when I was 16.
This report contains a lot of familiar elements: the surprise focus on topics the user didn’t think he cared about, the metro-centrism, and the weird fixation on an arbitrary person who happens to relate to a prominent brand. My own News Feed focuses inordinately on two of my friends to whom I am not particularly close in real life, but who regularly check in at chain restaurants on Foursquare and repost Gawker-network articles.
Maybe my life experience is similar to that of Herrera, and that’s why our News Feeds are similar. Or maybe Facebook’s algorithm is not designed just to show us what we want to see, but also to help Facebook make money.
It seems like less than a thunderbolt insight when you write it out. But for almost a decade, I have thought of Facebook the way it was when a joined: a social networking platform where I see content from my friends. In 2014, though, Facebook is a social networking platform where my friends and I see the same content.
Granted, that content comes from all over the web and often from my friends themselves. But I see the fraction of it that Facebook wants me to see, plus ads. This curated content, plus ads, is categorized by user. If an article wasn’t exactly written by my friend, she at least shared it, and if she didn’t share it she at least can be said to like it.1 The result is that my friends account for a numerical minority of the posts I see in my News Feed, but the whole thing is branded with their names.
Essentially, the News Feed is astroturf. It purports to be a grassroots reflection of my friends’ lives and interests, but really it is targeted marketing. We all know that. Facebook is a free website that is somehow worth billions of dollars, and the “somehow” in that sentence is marketing. We don’t think of that marketing as a bunch of advertisements, though. We think of it as News from our friends.
Wiser people than me have said it: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. What makes Facebook insidious—or, depending on your perspective, a genius venture that represents the future of business—is that we think of it as a mirror even as it operates as a projector. It was supposed to perfect the democratization of content and keep us in touch with our friends. Really it keeps us in touch with 29% of our friends and fills the rest of our time with what it’s paid to show us. But we think of it as us, and that’s the important thing.