Facebook just wants you to be happy. It's not working

They tried to make users happier. The company says that experiment didn't work out as they hoped

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published March 1, 2018 6:58PM (EST)

Mark Zuckerberg (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Mark Zuckerberg (Getty/Drew Angerer)

As the 3rd most viewed site on the entire internet, Facebook is a tremendously powerful company with the ability to affect what millions see and believe vis-a-vis their News Feed — the company’s name for the scrolling feed of posts, from users, brands or media outlets, that users see upon log in. Yet lately, the company has been under assault on multiple fronts. From politicians to media outlets, worried psychologists to cultural critics, the growing consensus is that Facebook is too powerful, too big, too prone to manipulation and too easy to propagandize. In reaction, Facebook has made some prominent changes to its News Feed’s underlying structure — their attempt to make users value their time more on Facebook, feel less like they’re dependent on the site for self-esteem boosts, and less manipulated by fake news.

Then today, they changed their minds.

We constantly try out new features, design changes and ranking updates to understand how we can make Facebook better for everyone,” wrote Facebook’s Head of News Feed in a blog post. “Today, we’re ending one of those tests: the Explore Feed.”

The so-called “Explore Feed” was Facebook’s attempt to bifurcate its two primary functions: creeping on friends and family’s lives, and reading (sometimes fake, often sensationalist) news articles. Admittedly, it is kind of strange to blend these two things together. If a well-informed, newspaper-reading time traveler from the 1950s arrived in 2018, they would identify Facebook as neither magazine nor yearbook nor photo album nor television, but a strange hydra that blends all of those for the purpose of absorbing as much of its users’ time as possible.

Facebook likes being a hydra, but it wants the heads to be more obviously separable. As Facebook described it:

The Explore Feed was a trial response to consistent feedback we received from people over the past year who said they want to see more from friends and family in News Feed. The idea was to create a version of Facebook with two different News Feeds: one as a dedicated place with posts from friends and family and another as a dedicated place for posts from Pages.

Through the course of its history, Facebook has constantly rehashed and redesigned its news feed in an attempt to make more money (and dodge critics). Video ads generally make more money than still ads, which is partly why the site pivoted to video recently. Hence, a TV icon now beckons users of the mobile app, one of five prominently-featured buttons.

In the olden days, Facebook’s news feed was merely a reverse-chronological scrolling list of all the posts from all the things — people, brands, magazines, etc. — that said user followed. Then Facebook started to change it. And change it. And change it.

Eventually, the news feed became the aforementioned weird hydra, yet one that was algorithmically designed to keep people scrolling forever (and thus keep shareholders happy). Studies showed that people reacted more positively to videos and pictures than text; the company keeps quiet about precisely how its algorithms work, but marketers who have studied it believe that if one posts video or photos on Facebook, the site will show said image to more friends than if you were to post a text-only status update. (Buffer, a social media management company, has a fascinating overview of "what the Facebook algorithm loves" on their blog here.) You can imagine how this kind of feedback loop can affect culture at large, by valuing certain types of visual communication over others and rewarding us with self-esteem boosts in specific cases. It's Pavlovian in the creepiest way.

What if I post a link to a magazine or news article? Reportedly, Facebook doesn’t show posts from publishers to as many of your friends. CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims this is because these posts "crowd out personal moments," but it is also true that links to external sites generally mean that users will leave Facebook — which that’s bad for their bottom line.

And yet, magazines and newspapers became incredibly dependent on Facebook for revenue, as the site had the power to quickly change a given brand’s visibility overnight with a quick news feed algorithm change. Publishers came to alternately fear and become dependent on Facebook’s algorithmic whims — more evidence, critics content, of the site’s overwhelming power.

You can see the problem here. Facebook likes publishers and needs them to provide content; it’s essentially a curator. And it also needs users to post selfies and status updates; it curates their “content” too. The “Explore Feed" split up the two functions.

Oddly, it didn’t work. Per the aforementioned blog:

You gave us our answer: People don’t want two separate feeds. In surveys, people told us they were less satisfied with the posts they were seeing, and having two separate feeds didn’t actually help them connect more with friends and family.

[...] Separately, we’re also discontinuing the Explore Feed bookmark globally this week. Explore gave people a new feed of content to discover Pages and public figures they hadn’t previously followed. We concluded that Explore isn’t an effective way for people to discover new content on Facebook.

So, does that mean the beleaguered site is back to square one?

It’s important to put any of Facebook’s changes or behavior in context. This is a for-profit corporation, publicly traded: despite their rhetoric about “prioritiz[ing] meaningful social interactions,” the company cares about one thing and one thing only: money. It is constitutionally incapable of caring about anything else.

Moreover, some within the tech industry have suggested that Facebook’s problems are unsolvable. Jonathan Morgan, who runs a company that monitors disinformation, told the Washington Post, “Even if [Zuckerberg] says, 'Resolve this right away,' the problems are baked into the fundamentals of the platform [...] It's not like Mark Zuckerberg just comes to the floor, makes a command, and everything turns around. The changes are a real threat to the way that these people think about success at their jobs.”

From a financial and logistical standpoint, this makes sense: the site traffics in eyeballs — not facts, not dog photos. Its entire function is to encourage users to spend as much time on it as possible. In the end, its shareholders do not fundamentally care what you stare at — be it fake news or dog photos or videos — as long as you keep staring. As I've written before, it's a lot like a sewage company in that sense: it doesn't matter what kind of sewage flows through the pipes, as long as it keeps flowing. That’s how it makes money.

But Facebook brass understandably fear regulation of some sort: Trafficking in the kind of untruths that manipulate election outcomes aren’t the kinds of things that companies want to do to stay in politicians' good graces in a democratic society. Ditto for getting users, particularly children and young adults, addicted to their services. Hence, it’s just a matter of time before the company announces another hare-brained, silver-bullet scheme, designed to please everyone — yet which will inevitably please no one.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

MORE FROM Keith A. Spencer