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Separating the News from the Newsfeed

Is it time to separate the news from the Newsfeed?

Irina Raicu

Irina Raicu is the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  Views are her own.

The following article first appeared in Re/code on February 14, 2017.

Social media scholars talk a lot about “context collapse”: the term that describes what happens when, on a platform like Facebook, users find that they can’t communicate freely with their friends while their relatives are reading the same posts, or with their relatives while the employers get to read, too, etc. The mix of audiences (on Facebook especially) has led to miscommunications, conflicts, and, increasingly, self-censorship.  

In its drive to encourage users to connect with as many people as possible on its platform, Facebook undermined its own appeal. What started as a way for college students to communicate with other college students has become a… well, it’s not clear what.  That’s in part because, along the way, another collapse happened.

Writing in All Things D in December 2014, Mike Isaac highlighted the distinction between most users’ view of the 2014 version of Facebook and the company’s plan at the time:

Most people think of Facebook in a similar way: It’s a place to share photos of your kids. It’s a way to keep up with friends and family members. It’s a place to share a funny, viral story or LOLcat picture you’ve stumbled upon on the Web.

This is not how Facebook thinks of Facebook. In Mark Zuckerberg’s mind, Facebook should be “the best personalized newspaper in the world.”

Fast forward to 2017, when the Facebook Newsfeed is full of links to news articles, and a new Pew Research Center study analyzes “How Americans Encounter, Recall and Act Upon Digital News.” Among the study’s interesting observations, a few stand out:

  • “When asked how they arrived at news content in their most recent web interaction, online news consumers were about equally likely to get news by going directly to a news website (36% of the times they got news, on average) as getting it through social media (35%).”
  • “Individuals who said they followed a link to a news story were asked if they could write down the name of the news outlet they landed on. On average, they provided a name 56% of the time. But they were far more able to do so when that link came directly from a news organization – such as through an email or text alert from the news organization itself – than when it came from social media or an email or text from a friend.”
  • “… 10% of consumers, when asked to name the source of the news, wrote in ‘Facebook’ as a specific news outlet.”

Following the recent presidential election, a lot has been written about Facebook’s role in the spread of “fake news” (of all stripes), as well as its role in the creation of “filter bubbles”—the name for the phenomenon that people’s own inclinations, combined with the “personalization” efforts that further entrench those inclinations, tend to create social media echo chambers in which users are not exposed to beliefs (or even facts) different than those they already possess—which in turn leads them to believe, mistakenly, that most people share their view of the world.

It turns out that the communication medium through which you send out party selfies or pictures of your pets and/or request more pictures of your grandkids and/or describe your dinner or your walk or your breakup in order to make yourself known and be admired or comforted by people who like you is not eminently suited to be, at the same time, a significant part of your serious news diet. It’s as if the family Christmas letter has been grafted, next to a work-related photo album and a collection of flirting texts, onto the trunk of a newspaper or news show curated by your aunt and by Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm.

Picture the front page of the [insert name of newspaper you trust] or the homepage of [insert digital media source that you trust] featuring several articles about the new Supreme Court nominee, a photo from your college roommate’s child’s baseball game, a note from one of your childhood friends who now lives in another country, two articles about executive orders, a friend’s comment about no longer eating meat, and a colleague’s post about a work-related upcoming event on ethics and robots. Is that not what your Facebook Newsfeed looks like now? Mine does.

What do we turn to Facebook for?

In the wake of the election, reading about filter bubbles and fakes, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I want out of Facebook. Increasingly, I don’t want it to be my source of rehashed news stories and my opportunity to preach to the choir. I want it to be my go-to place for pictures of friends and jokes and little self-revelatory notes about people I care about. Maybe the occasional recipe, recommendation of a restaurant or a book. The announcement of a new birth. Even the heart-wrenching update about the health of someone else’s loved one. Suggestions for political involvement or directions to marches, sure. The political is personal, after all; I realize that.

But the news is something else. It’s not about the “personal.” The last thing we need, and the last thing we should want, is a “personalized newspaper.” We lose when we miss the news that we didn’t realize we should know. We lose when we stop reading articles that aren’t directly about us, and opinions that contradict ours. Serendipity is a blessing, not a waste; it enlarges our sense of what’s possible (both good and bad), and our understanding of the true complexity of the world.

Keeping up with the news is important. Communicating with friends and family is important, too. But maybe it’s time to separate the “news” from the Newsfeed again—not because either of them is unnecessary or frivolous, but because they deserve different kinds of attention. Blended together, they now blur into a whole less meaningful than its parts.

Photo by Esther Vargas, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Feb 23, 2017

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