A few days ago, I got the sad and sudden news that an old classmate of mine – someone I haven’t seen since we were both in our very early teens – died suddenly in her sleep. There was no warning, there were no signs – it was, as people say, “just one of those awful, tragic things”. She leaves a husband and three children and heartbroken friends.
News like this travels fast. Within moments, our mutual friends had posted warm and mournful remembrances on Facebook, which serves in times like these as a kind of village square. The rest of us learnt the news quickly, through notifications and smartphone app badges and WhatsApp group messages.
Within a few hours, the far-flung and long-lost friends had coalesced around one particular Facebook post, and we shared memories and virtual hugs with each other into the night.
All of which is what social media does best – it lets people who aren’t in the same physical space share a virtual one. It connects people to each other for precisely times like these, when there’s (good and bad) news to share and you don’t want to do it alone.
But wading into the Facebook post meant, first, wading through a lot of extraneous posts in my newsfeed. It’s a time of contentious politics in the United States, and my Facebook newsfeed unfortunately reflects that. Scrolling past the petty and nasty arguments about presidential candidates – and the somehow even more heated disputes about movies and television shows – I finally came to the important post where friends were gathered to remember someone we had lost.
Facebook has become, to its chagrin, a place where people argue. A lot. And often in an ugly way. The complicated algorithm that governs your newsfeed and guides your attention also allows conflicts and disputes to explode onto your smartphone screen. Occasionally – maybe even often – these involve people who are utterly unknown to you. Posts about popular and newsworthy topics often straddle several member groups, which means it’s possible to be required to wade through arguments between a distant person who is a friend of a friend, and someone you couldn’t identify if your life depended on it. Neither may know the other, but both are embroiled in a vicious battle over, well, take you pick: sexism in the workplace, Donald Trump, the Olympics, the latest Coldplay album, Hillary Clinton’s email server, ISIL, a gluten-free diet or Brexit.
It’s an exhausting enterprise, to be confronted with all of that negative and charged emotion, when what you really want to do is commiserate with old schoolmates, or, on better days, watch a video of your niece playing the recorder. And what Facebook has discovered is that it’s also a major downer for user engagement. What they used to believe – that Facebook will emerge as the dominant news platform – has given way to a new strategy.
When people pick up their smartphone and start clicking on apps, Facebook has realised, they’re not terribly interested in learning the news of the world. They’re well aware, in a general enough way, that the world is in terrible shape. They’re apprised of the bitterly intractable camps that have arisen around every possible topic in sports, war, entertainment and culture, and if at all possible they’d like to put that all on pause for a moment. When people click on something, it’s a safe bet that they’re looking for something different. Something social. Something not so angry. Something fun.
At a developers’ conference this month, Facebook announced that it’s de-emphasising the news part of the newsfeed. They discovered – just as I did this past week, trying to memorialise an old friend – that what makes Facebook special and addictive is the way it connects people, not the way it provides a forum for argument. They’re also experimenting with live-feed video and have been hiring celebrities to create entertaining content. The algorithm that made news items and shared articles a priority is now going to put pets and recorder-playing nieces front-and-centre. Fun is coming back to Facebook.
Snapchat has always understood the importance of fun. Snapchatters post photos and videos – most of which evaporate in moments – to their network of friends and family, and collect them in an aggregated stream called “My Story”. They are invariably casual and sloppy, free from politics and contention.
Instagram works in a similar fashion. People post photographs of food, pets, children, holidays, all sorts of things. Instagram is the home of the “selfie” – those posed and fussed-over self-portraits people take of themselves in order to convince you (and themselves) that they’re really having a great time. This week, Instagram added a few new features. You can now create what they’re calling an “Instagram Story”, which is pretty much what Snapchat offers.
As Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat redouble their competitive efforts to entertain and distract a conflict-weary audience, it does seem to raise an important question: where, then, will people get their news?
May I suggest this radical solution? How about a newspaper?
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles
On Twitter: @rcbl