Two domestic stories have dominated American social media for well over a week: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the ongoing protests in Ferguson. But as many have pointed out, where we’re getting news about each has broken down along platform lines: Facebook is the place to share ice bucket videos, while Twitter is the constantly refreshing stream of news from Ferguson.
The reason for the split, as Digiday and others have pointed out, may be that Facebook's algorithm is specifically designed to show you feel-good stories—ones that you're more likely to share. Violence and strife are bad for virality. When the Washington Post’s Tim Herrera cataloged every post served to him in his Facebook feed, he discovered that he was shown only 29 percent of the total posts made by people in his network. Facebook hid plenty of stuff Herrera wasn’t interested in, but also plenty of stuff he thought he cared about—posts from two of his hometown newspapers as well as one of his favorite blogs (or one that “I thought was among my favorite blogs,” Facebook’s algorithm having placed a seed of doubt in Herrera’s mind).
“We learn based on what you’ve done in the past,” Greg Marra, a Facebook news feed product manager, told Herrera. “And we try to quickly learn about the things that you’re interested in.”
The ways that we tailor our Facebook feeds are more subtle and subconscious than the ways we curate our Twitter streams—they’re based on what we like, and what the people that we like themselves like, and what Facebook thinks we'll like before we know ourselves. It helps make Facebook a frustratingly slow source for breaking news. Twitter becomes the friend who lays it all out on the line, and Facebook is the one who holds back so as not to hurt your feelings.
It’s somewhat possible to game Facebook’s ability to understand your preferences. As Wired’s Mat Honan demonstrated, liking every item that came into his feed confused the algorithm’s ability to understand him. (On Medium, Elan Morgan ran the opposite experiment by not liking anything on Facebook for two weeks.) As someone who is often frustrated with what I'm served on my own feed—a pitiful fraction of content from my 2,500 friends—I tried yet another experiment: hiding, or essentially un-liking, everything that came into my feed. It revealed a few things about Facebook that seem impossible to change, no matter how hard you try.
I began my day of refusal with a perfectly pleasant photo of a friend boating. I don’t want to see this. Next was a post from someone I don't know, but liked by someone I do, about Iggy Azalea. Nope. Another boating pic, news about Don Pardo’s death, beach pictures, a note about some friends going to a concert, a Caddyshack meme, a Ferguson story, a photo of a birthday cake, a surprising number of Jezebel stories. I don't want to see this, I replied to each one.
After about two hours of hiding everything, I started to notice posts elbowing their way back into my feed that I had previously cast away. Two friends were celebrating a birthday, and Facebook really wanted me to know that people had commented on their timeline about it. Another friend attended a wedding of someone I don’t know, but no matter how many times I said I wasn’t interested, Facebook politely rejected my rejection and showed me anyway.
And on and on. Ferguson, CNN, Deadspin, a toddler injured in a botched police drug raid, selfies, poetry, Johnny Football, a dog in a pool, birthday, birthday, gym update, boating on the river again.
Then, after 500 hidden posts or so, something strange happened. Facebook needed to take a breather. There are no more posts to show right now, it said. I felt like Columbus setting out to find the edge of the Earth, and succeeding. As someone who used to explore the boundaries of video game maps—hoping to find a glitch in the system that would unlock some heretofore unexplored wonders in lieu of actually playing the game itself—this felt momentous.
And then it felt lonely. I couldn’t get Facebook to show me anything new in my Most Recent feed for about 20 minutes. After a break, I toggled to Top Stories, and there it was, waiting for me again: the damn birthday news I’d hidden five times, the same confounded wedding. A picture of someone’s new tattoo and another person’s new-job announcement began recurring as well. As the Atlantic’s Caleb Garling found when he tried to game Facebook’s algorithm, birthdays, weddings, newborns, and new jobs are what Facebook insists we want to hear about. My own trek into the darkness here confirmed as much.
Before long, Facebook reloaded and started serving me posts again in earnest. Interestingly, I started to see things from people whom I’d forgotten I was friends with—a nice change of pace from the lineup of two dozen or so people who pop up in the usual rotation. Nice to see you again, dude, but I don’t want to see this. Soon I was left with the isolating problem of having a news feed comprised only of my own posts (which you can’t hide without deleting).
I felt like a crank, and felt guilty about it, and maybe Facebook sensed this, because posts started resurfacing that I actually wished I had read—a dispatch from Ferguson, a concert review. Facebook was correcting for my own consciousness: No, you do want to see this. The algorithm started to seem like a parent trying to please a fussy child at dinnertime. OK, you don’t want your vegetables—how about chicken fingers? You love chicken fingers, right? Here came the flood of Gawker, Vice, Deadspin, Salon, and Business Insider posts. No way you’re going to hide all of these!
I hid all of them. A hundred more posts and I was done.
I came back a couple of hours later to see what destruction I had wrought. The birthday was still right there, beating like a tell-tale heart, rising up again and again like an unkillable horror-movie monster. Nine times I have refused you, and nine times you have returned. The ice bucket challenges were back, as was the stupid wedding and the post about the guy’s new job and the indefatigable Jezebel.
By telling Facebook that I didn’t want to see anything it was showing me, I thought it might try showing me something different, to understand me better. Instead it kept telling me what it thinks everybody wants to hear: good news. I'm not seeing much about Ferguson in my feed today. I’ve also noticed that a few of my friends are celebrating birthdays today. I think I’m going to go wish them a happy one. It’s what Facebook would want me to do.