Has Facebook Changed, Or Have I?

Lately, my Facebook news feed has been showing me an ad for my “Decade Book.” Like most Facebook advertising, I scroll past this one. But it does signal that I have, indeed, been a Facebook user for ten or more years. When I first discovered the social media platform, it was just beginning to transition from being a “social network,” as in the 2010 biopic of Mark Zuckerberg with that name, into what is now disparagingly called “social media.” Something was changing around that time.

I have noticed some of those changes in my time as an active user and freely admit that the platform is probably more boring now than ten years ago. Its original conception as a social network — where people from a potentially world-wide community of users could exchange thoughts via writing and photos still holds in theory – but that could never lead to the massive monetization which characterizes the current platform, one based entirely on advertising revenue.

As most commentators agree, Facebook’s structure became increasingly opaque over time. Its “algorithm” soon dominated all development of the platform. That algorithm is a wonder of artificial intelligence, clearly the most advanced example of audience targeting in the commercial world. By all appearances, the algorithm, not your individual preferences as a user, determines what you see in your Facebook feed. (Facebook disputes this assessment.)

And this opacity has caused some users to leave the platform. They don’t want to be Mark Zuckerberg’s “product.” Still, Facebook has more regular users globally than any other social media platform by far. The two largest countries for Facebook are the United States and India. But the cross-cultural appeal of Meta’s flagship creation seems to be far greater than any competitors. Twitter, for example, has only about 400 million monthly active users compared to Facebook’s nearly 3 billion! That’s roughly half the world’s population logging on at least once a month.

What do all these people see in Facebook? And do I really have much in common with many of them? Perhaps less than I did a decade ago? One of the features of Facebook that seems to me to have remained consistent with its original purpose is the feeling that I am the main curator of my friend network, my group participation, and even my news feed (now called simply the “Feed”). The greatest deterioration has been in the quality of that feed, for sure, but I must acknowledge that the sources I see most often are sources I have chosen to see. If they seem more boring now, perhaps it’s me that has changed. But I’m the one that picked the automotive journalism and the left-wing political screeds. The moderators of some of my groups also tend to bore me, but I was the one who freely chose to join those groups – I could just as easily leave. Chat rooms in Messenger have fared about the same. And, while I still follow a few friends on Instagram, I never post any more. Instagram is now the millennial platform of choice, it seems, leaving Facebook to us old folks. TikTok, they say, is the emerging platform for “Zoomers” (Gen-Z). Both Instagram and TikTok rely on images and video – Facebook grudgingly includes “stories,” and now “reels,” to compete. Yet, as with Twitter, the primary medium remains textual. Fine with me. The overtly political dimension of Twitter is why Elon Musk’s takeover was so seismic. I only use Twitter to plug new Warp & Woof posts, and I don’t believe I have any followers there, save maybe my younger son.

Facebook remains my principal source of communication with the outside world (after email). I get posts from my 131 friends via feed and contribute posts for all of them to see. My posts are typically links to something I’ve seen, where I make a short, pithy comment. I’ve largely “outgrown” viral memes since they don’t lend themselves to pithy comment. Of course, Warp & Woof announcements go here, too (and a dedicated Warp & Woof page).

Recently, I thought I would experiment with starting a “private group” on Facebook – membership limited by invitation. I invited about 30 of my friends to join this “Warp & Woof Politics” group, based on my guess of their interests from their posts. About a dozen responded. It’s been two months and essentially nobody has contributed anything. Is everybody just too damn bored by politics these days? That would be a shame. Perhaps we’ve all become inured to the increasingly fanciful, simple-minded, mass media portrayal of American politics. But how about other countries? Facebook could cover them all – I suspect the algorithm prevents me from seeing foreign politics. When I do see things in my feed, I’ll continue to share on my timeline and in appropriate groups, but that mysterious algorithm probably keeps many interesting things away.

The mechanism of groups, and other Facebook features, could be a draw for those who are now fleeing Twitter. That platform is always open to trolling in ways that Facebook generally avoids. Also, you can’t be anonymous on Facebook. And groups always have moderators, who can block people with impunity. It doesn’t have to be the algorithm that does all the blocking.

Yes, scrolling through ads in your feed can be annoying, but to this old boomer at least, it’s far less annoying than being forced to watch television ads with their insipid jingles interrupting programming content! Then again, the market is no longer limited to aging boomers brought up on television. So far, the advertising business model is the only economic alternative to subscription. And, subscription is far less egalitarian, ultimately, than the ad supported model.  I’m willing to live with it. I may add subscription (“paywall”) services from Substack or traditional news sources for more high-brow commentary – but only because I can!

Ultimately, I accept that Facebook’s algorithm is what a capitalist mass market media organization is reduced to. Anything I pay for will always be more elitist. Since I still profess to be a member of that mass market – a worker at heart, a tool for enriching the owners — I’m not deactivating my Facebook account any time soon.

— William Sundwick

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