Ever since the middle of the summer, Facebook has been wrestling a pig, trying its best to smear some red lipstick on the unruly beast. The company is tired of being the go-to site for pictures of babies and food. Facebook wants to be a personalized, digital newspaper, full of rich discussion and brow-furrowing articles—the sort that the company likes to refer to as “high-quality.” New Yorker before cat memes, no more emotionally manipulative viral media, down with Upworthy.
The message is clear: Mark Zuckerberg knows what’s good for you.
It’s hard to imagine how the Facebook brass came to misunderstand their own site so badly. This is a website for people to interact with their friends and, for monetization purposes, a few chosen brands. What we see should have as much as possible to do with what our friends want us to see and as little as possible with what Facebook wants us to see.
An early version of the algorithm update (it seems to have since been altered) repeatedly used the phrase “cat meme” as an example of the sort of content it was trying to devalue. The assumption it made was that cat memes were, for some reason, bad. It failed to understand that people in general, and Facebook users in particular, like cat memes. Why shouldn’t they?
Facebook has always been something of a cantankerous autocracy—I’ve used the site since 2005, and since then it has only made two or three changes that the user base in general didn’t hate. But when you run a user-driven site, you just don’t get to choose what your users will and won’t want. Consider Twitter, the implicit target of Facebook’s “newspaper” ranting. Twitter has emerged as perhaps the most important social media portal for basic news gathering, and yet its algorithm isn’t exactly working overtime to make sure that happens.
Here’s how it works: people post things, and they’re displayed in the order in which they’re posted. Other people read them. Twitter lets the users take it from there. It happened to become very good at certain things, one of which was news. Another one was cat memes.
In another sense, Facebook saw a certain kind of website doing very well on its platform, and it decided that it didn’t like it. We have plenty of reasons to become frustrated with the Upworthies of the world, or with online media in general. They change the way we can consume media, socially and otherwise, and it can be difficult to decide what’s for the better and what’s for the worse. But what they do works, and they’re not gaming “Facebook” so much as they’re gaming us. I can’t really fault them for that. Who’s to say that what they do should be classified as “low-quality?” There’s a distinct art to it, which could be considered quality. Let’s try and put this in terms dense enough for our masters at Facebook to consider them “high-quality:”
“People differ about Quality, not because Quality is different, but because people are different in their experiences. Any philosophical explanation of Quality is going to be both false and true precisely because it is a philosophical explanation.”
That’s from Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, high quality to some, low quality to others. One point the book makes is that quality is made of both subjective and objective aspects, but our own limited perspectives makes the latter more of a philosophical goal than a practical objective. Another is that thinking too much about the idea of quality can drive you completely insane.
What I can be sure of is that I’m not entirely comfortable with Facebook telling me what I should consider high or low quality. I personally love Buzzfeed quizzes, and if I can’t get them on Facebook, I will get them elsewhere.
Many columnists have compared these changes to what Google did in 2011 when it tweaked its algorithm to combat SEO-gaming content farms, much to the applause of the media. But there’s a fundamental difference in how we use Google and how we use Facebook: when we go to Google, we’re asking all-powerful robots to tell us what we should be looking at, and so we can support any streamlining those robots accomplish. When we use Facebook, however, we’re asking our friends what we should be looking at—what would be fun or interesting to look at it.
The best robots are the kind that get out of the way, not the kind that enforce the erudite whims of their Silicon Valley masters.
David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, IGN.com, Wired and more. Follow him on Twitter.