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Friends, Family, Facebook

Facebook has announced some major changes to how content will be placed in the newsfeed. Why is this news? Facebook has routinely changed the process by which content is placed in the feed. What is new is that the process used to be opaque. No one really knew what Facebook did or why. For example just two months ago, FB had decided to allow their closest publisher partners to begin deploying sponsored content in the feed. What a difference ten weeks make. From double dipping to banished.

Facebook is Old Media

Facebook isn’t “new media.” My go to example is CBS — Facebook is about the same size as CBS. Also, they act like CBS. Would Moonves allow you to run free commercials on the diamond network? Of course not. Why would Zuckerberg? For a number of years the easiest way to write a new media research article was to find some way in which the new media was in fact old. This became such a common move that professors steered their grad students away from making this argument. After Gitelman and Pingree the shelf life on this arguments was short. Yes, FB is the dominant channel of the social media in the United States. It is also done growing. The people who want Facebook, have it. They are also increasingly skilled in the use of Facebook, they don’t click willy-nilly. If international news doesn’t regularly cross your feed, there are data sovereignty laws and increasing nationalism worldwide. Silicon Valley is looking smaller and more provincial all the time.

Facebook wants to get out of the Editorial Game

Just days before the new newsfeed, Facebook announced that existing bias courses would be changed to include “political” bias as a category. This is an interesting idea, but what would that really mean? Would Facebook editors be involved in deciding what is factual? In a world with active conspiracy theory communities in fields as diverse as climate science, virology, economics, sociology, civil engineering, and many others: how would Facebook even manage to keep straight what the “truth” is, especially when some of these truths could easily be political constructs? Would they build an internal version of Snopes? Could they sell this as an API to other firms? Or would they be better off filling the feed with their bread and butter — content from friends and family? How would the public react to knowing the list of authorized facts from King Zuckerberg? Would that list of facts finally catalyze the formation of a “Conservative Alternative” to Facebook? Would it be called Limbaugher? Could Congress regulate that list of facts? Does Facebook really want these questions answered? No, they really don’t.

Affective Modulation is Critical to Social Network Success

In other places I have described the idea of affective modulation — the idea that the affect of users/viewers of media changes over time and that the task for flow in a post-network television/social media world is to precisely modulate advertising content to the affect of the public and to cautiously attempt to modulate the affect of that public. Stories from friends and family were already pegged in the feed because they are interesting. Facebook wants to come toFacebook and be happy. A happy world might be a good world? At least Facebook is consistent.

Don’t Fear the Feed

It is good for people to experience ambient social support. It is highly likely that this feed change will make Facebook better and facilitate more positive interaction between people. Sure, this is good for Facebook’s bottom line. But then again, why should I prefer to care about the Washington Post’s? The biggest challenge would seem to be the claim that publisher content is good for democracy, which is specious in the first place. If friends and family talk politics, something interesting and productive might happen. Remember — Facebook never said that they were banning content from the feed, just that Friends and Family would be prioritized, and to be honest I trust their judgement far more than the editors of The New Republic. Facebook is clear, your feed is “subjective, personal, and unique.” The idea that some publishers have had that the feed would be a free for all mistook Facebook for Twitter. Why do they care about FB? Because Twitter was awful. Why should FB be like TWTR even a little bit?

Associate Professor of Social Media. Oregon State University. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.

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