the real facebook power: agenda setting

Did everyone have a chance to read Noah Grand’s post on the Facebook issue? He posted a link in the comments, but I am afraid it will be buried. Noah has a background in journalism, so his post compares Facebook to other news outlets.

He brings up an excellent point about the bigger problem behind the Facebook issue. It’s not that users’ emotions were manipulated, but rather that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm has the power to deem what kinds of news are important:

“Facebook Manipulates Users’ Emotions” is a great headline that prompts people to think of a lot of nightmare scenarios. However, the emphasis on stealthy, subtle emotional manipulation makes it hard for people to understand the most powerful and plausible effect of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm: the ability to influence which topics we think are worthy of debate.

Read the whole post here.

6 thoughts on “the real facebook power: agenda setting”

  1. I’ve only had a chance to skim Noah’s post at this point, but general observation: maybe what has been most useful about the Facebook experiment blow-up is this more general reflection about what it means to have corporations deliberately biasing the information that comes into your life, even at the level of information that is coming to you from your friends.


  2. As I reflect on the points Noah makes I realize that the difference between FB and other media is not that it “biases” information, because that is what they do. But traditional mass media select the information I see about the world. FB is the only medium I use that is feeding me information from people I know and is using algorithms to shape what I see. Absent whatever manipulation FB is performing, once you have more than a half dozen FB “friends” you cannot process everything they all post. The high-volume posters flood the feed, and posts roll off the bottom rapidly. That is what can make FB addictive; if you don’t check often, you miss things. If you want to be sure to see a post from a low-volume poster, you have to check often. I even created a special list of low-volume posters that I used for a while; it is still there, but the tweaks I made to get rid of the dross went away. With enough options, I could tweak an algorithm that would give personally the feed I want. I personally never ever want to see anybody’s FB games or apps or dinner photo pix or cat pix; there are some FB “friends” whose political posts I’m actually kind of interested in, but not at all interested in the boring updates about their dinners and airport layovers and the charming accomplishments of their children; there are other FB “friends” for whom the personal news is what interests me. I’d like an algorithm that would give me one post a day from most people and would let me specify the kinds of content I’m interested in from others.

    What is aggravating about FB then is first the inability to tweak it individually the way you want and second FB’s insistence on shaking things up regularly so that any work-arounds an individual has made to gain control are lost.


  3. All nice ideas, olderwoman. There’s a bit of a paradox of rising expectations here. They gave us a new tool that boosts our agency to socialize, and we want more — control over the feed, privacy settings, etc.

    Just conjecturing here, but remember how you couldn’t edit posts once you made them? If I edit a post, 350 people’s feeds have to be re-run through the filtering/selection algorithm that’s learning what you want to see. I think it was just too computationally expensive for a while, and they finally figure out a way to manage the cost of it, and implemented post editing.

    You could still accomplish an edit by deleting and re-posting, so it wasn’t like they were trying to block the function in order to manipulate you. And editing is a ubiquitous feature of forums where users register and post. But on Reddit et al. there’s only one feed. The computational demands probably explode combinatorically for FB.

    I think it’s reasonable to suspect that a lot of the architecture of Facebook is due less to what the cognitive psychologists are telling them will add value to the databases they sell to Walmart, and more due to technological constraints and cost constraints in their production function.


    1. The point is that the regularity with which the privacy settings in particular but also the options for controlling feed cancel out out whatever individual customization a person has done. The implication is that FB is insisting on staying in control and not letting individuals control it. AND the fact that it is messing with between-person relations, not mass media -> person relations as other sources. I’m not compiling a wish list for FB, I’m commenting on why people get so mad at it.


  4. Ok I see your point now. I don’t know if that’s deliberate: an alternative hypothesis is that FB is just scrambling to improve the site constantly and the informational asymmetry that creates is a product of trying to improve people’s experience, and not wrest control from them (lots of the informational asymmetries in financial markets come from well meaning people trying to mitigate risk and deliver value to their customers and themselves, with accidents and power differentials accruing).

    I reread and noticed your stuff about categorizing content (family/politics/I made soup today). Picking these kinds of categories out of even static bodies of text is extremely difficult for content analyzers, and it’s even more complicated to do so dynamically as people keep adding to a corpus (their FB feed).

    But if FB can accomplish that kind of thing, then it would be sociologically and politically ideal, given that users are then interacting based on their purposeful performances for one another, rather than FB or other companies sorting people on more-cheaply observable ascribed characteristics like race/class/gender.


    1. Considering that these are all common categories of post, they could just implement a tagging system.


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