New model of journalism won’t happen on Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, speaks during a company press event in 2010. (PHOTO: Robert Scoble, Flickr CC)

Lately I’ve been contemplating the difference between how I felt about being on Facebook after signing up a decade ago and how I feel logging on now.

It’s a world of difference.

In a way, this change explains the reason Facebook is abandoning efforts to curate journalism, and why that probably won’t work either.

Looking back on that first year on Facebook, the experience was exciting. I immediately connected with a lot of old friends from different periods in my life. I found out that some of my more casual acquaintances were actually pretty funny, or good photographers, or at least encouraging.

In the coming years, I found people I didn’t know. People who shared interests, or whose work I respected. I made valuable connections that enhanced not only my online experience, but my world perspective.

Lots of people joined. The friends list grew. I found a platform for sharing my writing. I started using Facebook professionally as well as personally. The line between the two quickly became nebulous, but that hardly mattered.

I’m a public figure. I’ve been putting my work out there since I was a teenager. I had already formed what I thought was a tough skin in the face of criticism. But the desire for approval and the emotional impact of rejection seemed amplified on social media.

I also realized how much what I saw was influencing my thinking. As a liberal, my friends list skewed liberal. The latest political talking points were repeated so many times that even I grew sick of them. Extreme positions became normal.

Meantime, conservative friends and family members were having the same experience on their side of the internet. And because Facebook started as a personal network, political differences meant the questioning of personal relationships.

Well, that’s OK. Maybe we can talk about politics less.

But politics endured. And it became apparent that politics didn’t mean discussing a policy position. It was an ever-widening culture war. “They” were the problem. “They were the enemy.” No matter if “they” included a co-worker, a relative, or a neighbor. Emotion ruled everything. Emotion *became* logic.

Over the past few years this whole situation became weaponized. Social media misinformation became an effective strategy used by powerful people we do not see and whose names we do not know. Facebook users spread lies far and wide, like a flame in a field of tinder (Not Tinder, that’s different). Sometimes they meant well. Sometimes they didn’t. Motives were as shapeless as the information itself.

People shared obviously false stories from dubious sources. Other stories were true, but twisted to emphasize the part of the story convenient to some unseen interest. Meantime, reliably sourced articles were shared, too, but the dirtiest secret of all was that people only read the headlines and descriptions. Few actually read the stories all the way through. If they did, it was only to confirm their initial impression. The longer it took to explain something the more likely that short bursts of misinformation could skew the discussion on any given topic.

We already knew that political action groups were involved in this. They started before 2010. But now foreign governments were getting involved. The Russian government amplified stories that fit their interests throughout the 2016 campaign. Investigations have yet to reveal the full impact of this practice. It’s reasonable to suggest that it affected a historically close election that split the popular vote and electoral college.

Meantime, I continue blogging. Paradoxically, Facebook remains the single largest source of new traffic for my website. I’m not sure how meaningful those clicks are, but they are well documented. The entire experience becomes more anxious. Just this year I’ve had half a dozen truly negative experiences on the social network, made more so by the fact that they involved people I know and respect in matters other than our disagreement.

And yet we still log on. We look for something new. We look for that first burst of excitement that has long left the building. There’s still nothing like it, even if it’s not necessarily good.

Facebook is simultaneously bigger and more profitable than ever. Yet former programmers and executives reveal, increasingly, they are afraid of the monster they helped create.

Not CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg or his current team, however. They have a solution. The new plan? Change the algorithm of what people see (again). This time they want to emphasize personal relationships, while showing people fewer links and “journalistic” content.

Facebook knows its created a vast, often toxic environment for democracy. Their users tell them they want to see their friends and nothing else. But who’s a friend? And what is the truth? Is it even possible to put it back the way it was? Or will developers work around it the way they have before.

Or will people finally stop using social networks?

I’m closer to this than I ever have been, despite the challenges this would mean to my professional writing career.

But still, I log on. You will see this on Facebook.

Comments

  1. I think your feelings echo many Facebook users. I, for one, found your blog via Facebook. However the fact that we cannot trust the news found on this site along with the extreme bias and hatred makes one want to retreat to pen and paper with friends. While I know this won’t happen (especially for this 65 year old woman), it should give us all pause to consider our options. This past Saturday I had the privilege of going to the woman’s rally in Raleigh, NC with my 31 year old daughter and 3 of her friends (all highly educated, career women). They talked about the fact their peers no longer use Facebook nor any other media what can digitally track them. This should be something Zuckerman should be worried about – what has he created?

  2. It’s a curious situation, and I appreciate your thought process here, describing your experience over the 10 years of time. I started at about the same time. What I most appreciate is that the idea of curating information is, but it would seem the problem is the pushing/amplifying effects and the ability for ‘anyone’ to represent themselves as a news ‘source’. I am grateful for the ability to have Facebook deliver articles from sources as diverse as The Economist, Financial Times, Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, LA Times, as well as other regional or independent sources. I tend to comfortably ignore those that are from sources that are clearly partisan or otherwise obscure. This approach does require an investment of time and effort to both establish initially and maintain.

    I have been thinking of a returning to an RSS-feed type of approach to my news gathering and perspective/opinion journalism. I feel like this will be more time-intensive.

  3. Thank you! Being far better with words than I am, you have echoed my thoughts (in a much nicer form) – and to be clear, I used to consider myself an (R) and grew up a Minnesotan’ (D) – now i’ve no idea anymore and I’m more and more becoming keen to the idea of the very concept of party’s not mattering any longer, only discussion and REAL listening especially to those we have in our lives who don’t agree with us

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