Maybe you’ve heard or read rumblings on Facebook. Maybe those rumblings have opened your eyes to a reality you’d barely noticed until now. Maybe you feel compelled to spread those rumblings and revelations further to your friends and loved ones.
Hold on just a second. Do not share that meme.
If you’ve spent any time on Facebook this past week, you’ve likely seen a good amount of Tide Pod humor, more than you care to see of President Trump’s exposed noggin (Wilson from “Castaway,” is that you?), and repeated instances of a particularly persistent meme imploring whoever is within eyeshot to post comments or click “like” in defiant action against Facebook’s “new algorithm,” the alleged culprit behind users only seeing posts “from the same 26 FB friends and nobody else.”
The meme’s momentum was driven by this ambient anxiety over whether we are being fairly served by Facebook (a residue of the 2016 election), as well as an announcement on Jan. 11 by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that the platform was enacting “major changes” in the very product of Facebook. “As we roll this out, you'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media,” he wrote. “And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”
Facebook’s algorithm can only be characterized as “new” in the same way a wandering cloud is from moment to moment, but at least in this user’s case, the tweaks have been noticeable. For one thing, there’s less random political flotsam and jetsam clogging my feed (which either means the algorithm is working, or my hyper-blocking campaign has paid dividends now that I’m paying attention). And while I certainly don’t feel any less targeted by ads, which still trail me to Facebook from other sites like a stray cat following me home from the store, I do feel slightly less solicited to engage with corporations in empty ways. I feel less bombed; more balmed. Which is nice, I guess?
For its part, Facebook has denied the meme’s memey allegations in a statement to the website Quartz: “Friends don’t let friends copy and paste memes, and this one simply is not true. We rank News Feed based on how relevant each post might be to you, and while we’ve made some updates that could increase the number of posts you see from your friends, your News Feed isn’t limited to 25 of them.”
It’s no coincidence that these changes follow contentious hearings and months of public reprobation concerning Facebook’s passive role in spreading propaganda through the last election; nor that they precede the onset of the media food fight of the 2018 midterms. Clearly, Facebook is trying to save face.
So we know why Facebook is freaking out; but why are my friends following suit?
“The more interaction you have with people, the more friends will show up on your feed,” the meme explains in its well-meaning froth. “Otherwise Facebook CHOOSES who you see.” “Facebook” in this case means the algorithm — a machine we can set out to trick — but as Will Oremus suggests in a piece for Slate, it hardly matters.
“The intelligence behind Facebook’s software is fundamentally human,” he wrote in January. “When it evolves, it’s because a bunch of humans read a bunch of spreadsheets, held a bunch of meetings, ran a bunch of tests, and decided to make it better. And if it does keep getting better? That’ll be because another group of humans keeps telling them about all the ways it’s falling short: us.”
Facebook put a lot of people through a lot of anxiety for a good long time, so it’s understandable that users are a wee bit tetchy when it comes to even the slightest modifications to our News Feeds. As much as we resent them, many of us still rely on them for a steady diet of information, not stopping once to consider it’s a little weird eating out of the same vending machine for every meal.
But the viral appeal (in both senses) of this meme is more personal, seizing upon a different anxiety — a kind of virtual loneliness where Facebook shrinks your world by way of making your Feed a more reasonable representation of who you care about. This kind of objective, data-driven approach feels cold against the soft, warm, ostensibly real relationship we collect and cultivate on Facebook. Just imagine being told who your real friends are by a formula — especially when it’s correct.
I imagine having this concern 20 years ago when my Internet took 10 minutes to connect. Back then, the prospect of keeping faithful tabs on 25 friends would be more exhausting than isolating. But that was before Facebook turned our friendships into a show and our friends into the audience. A twist of a knob at Facebook HQ could very well bring our close friends closer, but what would that do to the strangers in our lives?Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur.