From The New Inquiry:
Social media’s advent was supposed to do away with central broadcast towers, but it hasn’t really turned out that way. Instead mass media companies distribute their products through the platforms and consumers’ role is to boost the signal for them. The fact that consumers create content of their own is insignificant; it doesn’t compete with the mass media product.
On Facebook, the entirely of the News Feed flow is the mass-media product, and it is made not by executive producers but by an algorithm.
Will Oremus wrote a history of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm for Slate, which seems to tell the story Facebook wants told about how that algorithm has evolved. (There isn’t, for instance, much discussion of how the News Feed accommodates advertisers, as Nathan Jurgenson points out.) Oremus sets up the specter of omnipotent and autonomous machine-learning-driven algorithms as a straw man that can be blown away by the revelation that well-meaning people actually program them. Get this: “the intelligence behind Facebook’s software is fundamentally human.” Who knew? I thought the algorithms were found inscribed on tablets of gold in Menlo Park.
Much of the rest of the article is a look at the benign wizards at Facebook who try to interpret our behavior and articulate our inarticulate yearnings in the form of a satisfying flow of content. It’s his way of following up on the question he poses about that human intelligence on which the News Feed algorithm is premised, and its logic (or lack thereof): “What if people ‘like’ posts that they don’t really like?” What if engagement is not the same as enjoyment?
Any examination of the logic behind the News Feed has to look at not only how it is designed to hold users’ attention, but why.