I am a musician. That was primarily the reason I joined Facebook, it seemed like a good way to reach people and promote gigs. When I signed up, it said on the main page “Facebook is free, and always will be”. That was in 2008. So I set up a personal page, and a page for my band. That was all great, and people liked the band page and responded when I said something, people got to hear about gigs and whatnot. And I got to see what my friends were saying all the time. It was fun. So far, so good.
If there’s a timeline of treachery, ground zero for Facebook fuckery was September 2011. That is when they introduced the new feature that ultimately messed everything up… and I mean everything – news, politics, the fortunes of individuals and nations.
I didn’t have to deal with the disgusting money side of promotion when I had access to this new kind of goodwill economy. I didn’t have to pay a promotion company for article placement in HotPress, or deal with any other greasy middlemen. I didn’t have to feel like I was spamming anyone when I posted something on my band’s page, everyone who saw it would have already expressed a preference to do so. I didn’t have to pay for advertising. If someone liked my page, it meant they wanted to hear about my band, they didn’t want to miss a gig or an album release. Facebook’s basic functionality supported a kind of community building, it supported free choice for all.
For musicians and other creative artists, it levelled the playing field. It’s not who you know or who’s investing in you that makes you popular in this meritocracy, it’s how your ideas resonate with real people in real ways that allows them to spread. That’s the only currency needed. Facebook was free, and always had been. The only downside was the advertising in the margins. But I understand they’re a company, they have to make money. I could put up with the ads. That’s fine. There’s always going to be some kind of trade-off, right? The platform was still free. They didn’t lie about that. And after a while… okay, there was the occasional sponsored page creeping into my news feed as well. I was not expecting to see that, but no big deal. Business is business, I understand that. Facebook was still free, our initial agreement seemed basically intact after three years as a Facebook user.
If there’s a timeline of treachery, ground zero for Facebook fuckery was September 2011. That is when they introduced the new feature that ultimately messed everything up… and I mean everything – news, politics, the fortunes of individuals and nations. The news feed went from ‘Most Recent’ to ‘Top Stories’ by default. It sounds like such an innocuous change. But think about what’s behind it, now an algorithm decides what you see, what everyone sees. This literally changes the whole nature of the site. They have plausible deniability because users can override the default option (but you have to continually re-select ’most recent’, otherwise it keeps returning to the new default ‘evil’ option). This little change allowed Facebook’s algorithms to control the flow of information to… basically everyone.
Filter bubbles become more pronounced. If your cousin doesn’t agree with your politics, Facebook might just hide your cousin. It might hide any moderating influences. Whole swathes of people end up believing ideas that can’t stand scrutiny, they start to inhabit alternate pockets of reality.
People had joined Facebook as a community-building platform. This change to the news feed affected the functionality of the site, stealthily hijacking these communities with new capitalistic motivations. In the ‘most recent’ news feed, you were given the content from your friends and from the Pages you had Liked in unedited chronological order. If they posted something, you saw it. In a ‘Top Stories’ news feed, the algorithm will feed you whatever keeps you on the site, and whatever makes money for Facebook. Sometimes these are one and the same. Facebook’s algorithms don’t squeeze out your genuine friends and preferences completely. That would make you too suspicious. And keeping up with friends keeps you on the site, keeps you interacting, makes you a better consumer. It’s been working hard to get the balance just right. It asks for your help to fine-tune your preferences, preserving the illusion that you are choosing what you see. And you are choosing what you see, but Facebook is choosing what you don’t see. If I don’t pay up, you don’t hear about my gig. It doesn’t matter that you hit that Like button on my page (confirming your preference to stay updated). If I post about an upcoming gig on my band’s page, Facebook shakes me down for cash. Nice post you got there, it’d be a shame if no one saw it. It was an utter betrayal of everything that had been good about Facebook when ‘Boost Your Post’ buttons started appearing a couple of years after ‘Top Stories’. Clearly that was the plan all along.
Nice post you got there, it’d be a shame if no one saw it.
That’s just how the change annoyed me personally. Bigger picture, think of the devastation this has caused in world politics… the curated content of the ’Top Stories’ keeps showing people more of what they like, telling them more of what they want to hear, and filtering everything else out. People with fringe opinions go unchallenged. People who do hit those ‘Boost Your Post’ buttons get what you could call ‘prioritised free speech’. Filter bubbles become more pronounced. If your cousin doesn’t agree with your politics, Facebook might just hide your cousin. It might hide any moderating influences. Whole swathes of people end up believing ideas that can’t stand scrutiny, they start to inhabit alternate pockets of reality. There is no agreed-upon source of information, and even agreed-upon information is used to draw wildly different conclusions.
Facebook built their all-encompassing empire upon the good intentions of their users, and it was the benevolent functionality of earlier iterations of the site that allowed it to become a social space online. They are now too big to be considered merely a media company. There should be no third party with a profit motive deciding what people do and don’t see when they communicate with each other in a social space. They promised one thing and built it, then slowly swapped out all the bits that made it good, calculating how far they could push the ‘evil’ business model without alienating users to the point where they would leave the site. Facebook has become a parasite on society. There is a societal cost to the billions it raises in profits. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already realise.
As of now, I am still on Facebook. Despite how much I hate pretty much every decision Facebook has made in the last ten years, there is still a degree of ‘social space’ functionality, and the basic goodness of people’s intentions make it a platform that is very difficult to leave. But lately I have been remembering to switch my news feed preference back to ‘Most Recent’ less and less. I have grown tired of fighting the point. Facebook can remember my settings for everything else except this one thing (this one thing that gives them ultimate power over everything I see and don’t see). It’s maddening.
There is one thing you can do.
All you need to do is save a new bookmark with the URL: https://www.facebook.com/?sk=h_chr The link loads your Facebook page with ‘Most Recent’ news feed option pre-selected. They may change this code in future. It would not surprise me if they changed that quite regularly. But for now, I’ve set it up so my browser overrides Facebook’s default ‘evil’ option.
If the bookmark I shared stops working for you, you can find whatever they changed it to. If you’ve got a browser with developer options, you just right-click the ‘Most Recent’ news feed option and ‘Inspect Element’. The relevant code snippet appears as if by magic. Look at that, we fixed Facebook!