If Twitter implements a Facebook-style algorithm, you may not hear about the next Ferguson
Like many across the country, I've been closely following the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, allegedly at the hands of an white cop.
And also like many, I've relied largely on social media for reports and analysis about the story. While these networks are often full of false or incomplete information, with a little discretion and skepticism on the part of the reader, social media provides the broadest and most up-to-the-minute picture of what's happening on the ground. (If nothing else, it's a better way to consume news than cable television, which apparently is content to politicize the actions of protesters by lording over them the message of Martin Luther King, Jr, of all people).
But while basically everyone in my Twitter feed is sharing stories and information about Ferguson, Facebook provides a very different picture. I've only seen two or three people posting about the killing, and many of those posts have said something to the effect of, "Why aren't more people talking about this on Facebook?"
It's not because Facebook users are dumber or less news-savvy per se. The answer is simple: Algorithms.
As you probably know by now, Facebook uses an algorithm that aims to predict what type of content users will most want to click on, so it can surface those stories more frequently in a user's News Feed. As we've reported in the past, this algorithm favors listicles, quizzes, and other clickbait, as well as pat inspirational stories with little substance behind them. Even Facebook admits that it wants to make us feel happy ("delighted," even). After all, that was its defense for conducting emotional experiments on its users.
Of course, don't believe for a second that Facebook does this out of the goodness of its heart. Happy people, or at least people who think happiness is just a click away, are more likely to buy whatever shit Facebook's advertisers are selling. In any case, a report from Ferguson hardly passes the happy test -- If you've been following any of the reports out of Ferguson lately, you'll know there's little to be delighted about in greater St. Louis right now.
Twitter, on the other hand, with the exception of the occasional promoted tweet, presents a raw feed of the people you follow, nothing more, nothing less. Users can carefully select the people they follow, so if you're the type of politically-minded news junkie who wants to know the latest in the Michael Brown killing or any other major news story, you can curate the accounts you follow accordingly. That's why no matter how hard Facebook tries to be akin to your daily newspaper, it's still got nothing on Twitter when it comes to news.
Or at least for now.
Sadly, Twitter's days as an indispensable utility for serious news consumers may be numbered, and here's why.
In May, the New York Times reported that Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was experimenting with Facebook-style algorithms designed to unearth the "best" content for users. The objective here is two-fold. For one, Twitter has a relatively steep learning curve compared to Facebook and other popular consumer web products. Getting the most out of Twitter can mean spending weeks or even months finding the best people to follow. It also takes some upkeep, finding new kids on the block to follow and unfollowing accounts that have worn out their welcome. With Wall Street unimpressed by Twitter's user growth since going public, the company is desperately looking for ways to make the service more attractive to newcomers.
The other reason? Advertising. Not only is Facebook good at predicting what news stories people will click on, it's also learning how to leverage all the data it collects from "likes" and comments in order to better serve up advertisements. Just look at what happened when Wired's Mat Honan, as an experiment, "liked" every post he saw on Facebook. As I wrote at the time, Honan had "revealed the logical conclusion of Facebook’s algorithm, and Facebook itself: A wasteland of branded content designed not to enlighten but to make you buy and click and share."
That's what we may come to expect from Twitter if it tries to mimic Facebook's algorithmically-curated feed. Your future Twitter feed may be full of share-baity viral videos, listicles, and of course advertisements that crowd out smart reports about the things we care about most from people we follow. After all, why would I follow all these smart journalists and news enthusiasts if not to see what they're sharing?
It's worth noting that while #JusticeForMikeBrown is listed eighth on Facebook's list of trending topics (below Michael Cera's new folk album and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but still), nothing related to Brown or Ferguson is on Twitter's list of Worldwide or United States trends. But that's not the point, and in fact that's the beauty of Twitter -- something doesn't have to be "trending" or "popular" for me to find it on Twitter. I'll find it because I know the people I follow will share it -- that is, as long as Twitter's still willing to show it to me.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]