Of course, the media mostly freaked out on Tuesday after Facebook announced that it would be prioritizing posts from your family and friends over posts from media outlets in your news feed. Facebook warned publishers that they’d take a traffic hit with this latest change.
But for normals, this seems like reasonably good news (even though it probably means hardly anyone will even read this post I'm writing right now).
Like many others, I joined Facebook back in the day to stay connected to other humans, not to any particular newspaper or charming viral news site. I was home with a new baby, feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the challenges of new motherhood. I reconnected with long-lost friends, some of whom were already new moms and understood what the hell I was going through.
When I was struggling to breastfeed, an old friend gave me some advice on Facebook about getting a lactation consultant. I had not known that such persons existed. In the middle of the night, awake with a baby, the site was not only a great distraction but a comfort -- there were people out there who were up with babies, too! They were talking to me.
“I joined Facebook back in the day to stay connected to other humans, not to any particular newspaper or charming viral news site.”
I was following the news, too, at the time. Not on Facebook. Publishers hadn’t yet really caught on to the site’s massive audience or power. I dutifully visited news sites, like everyone else. That was all fine and good, but reading the news online didn’t make me feel better; it certainly didn’t make me feel less alone.
In recent years, as more of us connect to the Internet on smartphones, fewer of us visit those news websites anymore. Most people look at texts, maybe email, and then open the Facebook app. News organizations went where the people were: to Facebook. They’ve leaned heavily on the massive social network of more than 1 billion daily active users.
As a result, a lot of Americans get news from Facebook -- about 142 million of us, according to Pew. The site is "far and away the most popular source of news about government and politics," Farhad Manjoo wrote in The New York Times.
Over the past year, I’ve come to find Facebook kind of overwhelming and corporate. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist and have followed too many institutional accounts over the years, but my feed has become crowded with post after post from newspapers or websites offering the hottest takes on whatever story is raging that day. As Donald Trump has risen to prominence recently, it’s become suffocating. How many stories about one man's ill-advised taco salad tweet does a woman need to read?
The same held true for more important stories, too. Do I need 50 takes on the Brexit? I do not.
“How many stories about one man's ill-advised taco salad tweet does a woman need to read?”
Like many others, I turned to Instagram (which Facebook owns). Others now go to Snapchat. Facebook has been wringing its hands recently as more people turn away from the site toward other less news-driven social networks.
At the same time, fewer users were sharing personal status updates, photos and videos. Those shares are more critical to Facebook's business than the news. "Personal updates—including the half-based opinions, but also the baby photos, engagement announcements, and vacation photos—are what keep people coming back to Facebook," Erin Griffith noted in April, writing for Fortune.
Without those users, the whole ad-based business of Facebook would collapse. In its announcement, Facebook emphasized its commitment to its original purpose: "connecting people with their friends and family."
It's a familiar theme for all those folks in the media freaking out today.
There’s a bit of hand-wringing now that, in light of Tuesday’s announcement that Americans will see less “news” and more pics of babies and puppies, the public will grow less informed. (My colleague Damon Beres convincingly makes that case.)
It's really too early to tell how this change will look. It might mean we see just a smidge less news, as Beres writes. So, no big deal.
And if you think about the level of discourse on Facebook, you’d have to realize that getting our news on a social network is a dubious, possibly even dangerous, proposition.
The Facebook algorithm shows you what you like to see, and when you’re talking about news -- particularly political news -- that means liberals get a liberal spin on the news, while conservatives get the opposite. Most people live online in little Facebook silos. That helps further polarize Americans, who could arguably use a little less polarization these days. (See: Congress.)
"Facebook users do indeed ... tend to engage in creating echo chambers, encasing themselves in environments that mesh with their own personal beliefs while rejecting other viewpoints," researchers concluded in a paper published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Others have made similar arguments.
Those echo chambers can have the disastrous results, the researchers argued -- spreading the idea, for example, that global warming isn't real or that Sept. 11 was a U.S. government conspiracy.
I'd much rather spread the idea that my kids looked extremely adorable last weekend.
Read the other side of the argument: Facebook Just Gave The Finger To Millions Of People Who Use It For News