Facebook Is Getting Rid of Clickbait — But Not Because They Care About You

"On the contrary, they let it happen because it was good for them, and after seeing other people get rich because of it, decided to flex their muscles."

offthemedia-1We’re saved! Finally, Facebook has announced it’s stepping in to put a stop to all the “clickbait.”

Sure, they largely created and encouraged today’s iteration of this problem (Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Viral Nova et al were founded almost exclusively around Facebook’s easy-to-game algorithms) and profited greatly from it. But now they’ve had enough and things are going to change.

I believe that. I also believe that things are going to get worse.

When Facebook — or any social network — suddenly says it has a problem with “clickbait,” they’re not being fully honest. The real issue is with the “click” — the leaving of their site — not the fact that their users have been baited.

After all, if they had a problem deceiving people, they probably wouldn’t have run an experiment that toys with their users’ emotions. Nor would they have an enormous data department designed to do one thing and one thing only: manipulate users to stay spend more time on the site. As Andrew Ledvina, a former Facebook data scientist bluntly put it, “The fundamental purpose of most people at Facebook working on data is to influence and alter people’s moods and behaviour. They are doing it all the time to make you like stories more, to click on more ads, to spend more time on the site.”

I translate Facebook’s moves against clickbait more directly as a simple message to publishers: Guys, our algorithm has been sending you the wrong message. Feel free to trick people as you wish, just don’t steal them away from our site in such high numbers and piss them off while doing so. This is why Facebook recently began autoplaying videos, and has always heavily favored YouTube and photos (but not photos with links, as Facebook has said) Because those things keep people inside their walled garden.

In Trust Me I’m Lying, I paraphrased Neil Postman’s argument about television: As far as TV producers are concerned, the worst thing a show could possibly do is inspire or provoke you, two horrible emotions that risk having you get up and leave your living room and miss the imminently scheduled set of commercials.

That’s the real sin of clickbait. It fails the self-interest test.

So while we may see less crappy news on Facebook because of these changes, it’s only because new incentives are being created. Not necessarily better ones, just new ones.

As Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed put it, whenever human beings see a metric “[the] natural inclination is to game it.” And the millions and millions of dollars at stake only increase that propensity.

So if Facebook says it will weigh “time on site” as a way to guard against clickbait, that’s what publishers will game now. For instance, TIME and other outlets have already rolled out “infinite scroll”, as a way of tricking people into spending more time on their sites. Metrics shape behavior–that’s how it goes.

But when all you’re swapping a flawed metric for is a flawed metric, it becomes whack-a-mole. Ban one strategy and a new one comes up. In this case, it doesn’t even help Facebook, but public pressure was such that they felt they had to act. You could argue that this is exactly what Facebook deserves too, for having messed with and manipulated their algorithm in the first place.

This game of musical algorithms — which publishers chase and try to master — is rooted in an economic reality of attempting to monetize a huge platform. What we’ve seen happen along the lifespan of services like Google and Facebook and Twitter is that early in their histories they are perfectly fine with being an ecosystem, with businesses and startups making money off their platform. They’re all for open and fair trade at first. But as they get bigger and pressures to produce revenue grow stronger, the host has to tighten the screws, and take their cut.

Now, we’re seeing Twitter take those same steps, announcing that they are organizing the Twitter timeline with what Twitter CFO Anthony Noto referred to as “an algorithm that delivers the depth and breadth of the content we have on a specific topic.” Ah, so not what Twitter has been for its entire life up until this point: an open, real time-record of what’s going on in the world. (And what do you know, Twitter also recently went after Twitpic. Originally, it served their interest but now it doesn’t so the service is being tossed aside like an old hookup.)

Sure, you can argue that this is all capitalism at its finest and private companies are free to do as they like. If they want to run pseudo-extortionary business strategies, that’s up to them, right?

Ok — but let’s at least acknowledge that’s what’s going on here. Let’s not pretend that Facebook is banning clickbait because they care. On the contrary, they let it happen because it was good for them, and after seeing other people get rich because of it, decided to flex their muscles.

That’s particularly alarming when Facebook is more than just a company. It’s now the filter through which one-third of US adults get the news as the Pew Research Center’s study demonstrated. The Newsfeed is the news for literally billions of people all over the world. Twitter is now a resource and an actor in global revolutions, and world events like the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the protests in Ferguson.

In other words, services like Facebook and Twitter and Google can become so large that they become part of the fabric of our lives. Indeed as social networks, they operate as middlemen for society itself. This means that their algorithms–and their interaction with us, the people–are more than just revenue centers to be tweaked at will, they are public trusts.

If behemoths, like Facebook, and publishers, like Buzzfeed, abuse that trust, what options are we left with?

It calls to mind some ominous but apt words from Lawrence Lessig: “We should interrogate the architecture of cyberspace as we interrogate the code of Congress.”

With moves like this, I suppose that needs to start now.

Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on The Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising available in paperback on September 30th.

Facebook Is Getting Rid of Clickbait — But Not Because They Care About You