Facebook's Newsfeed is Our Lowbrow Psyche Staring Back at Us

By Kate Knibbs on at

Facebook's Newsfeed is a broken mess. It's meant to be a personalised news ticker, but it can look like a relentless stream of Ice Bucket Challenges and dog photos. Facebook has already tried to banish clickbait and hoaxes, yet many Newsfeeds are heavy on the meaningless filler and viral froth. To fix its flagship feature, Facebook is trying something else: asking people what they want to see and why they want to see it.

Huzzah! Finally, a chance to highlight how the way Facebook's manipulations and algorithms reward the dumbest content and ruin our social networks—right?

Unfortunately, that may not be true. Because when Facebook asked people what they wanted to see, they wanted to see more garbage.

Thirty people in Knoxville, Kentucky are getting paid to comb through their Newsfeeds and explain why they like or dislike the posts they see, ranking each story, in an effort to show Facebook what its algorithms are missing. Facebook recently expanded the program to six hundred people around the U.S., asking them to dig into their preferences for four-hour stretches. This program is trying to discern whether our clicks truly measure what we want to see.

Steven Levy calls this the "Dozen Doughnuts" problem in a Medium article about Facebook's program, comparing sugary clickbait to the digital equivalent of a doughnut. This problem hypothesizes that people might actually prefer something more substantial if they weren't so tempted by all the sweets:

It's not that you want the doughnut—you aren't clamouring for one, and you won't miss that sugar bomb if it's not in front of your face. But once that delicacy is in front of you…oh, what the hell!

For lots of us, the Facebook News Feed is a never ending delivery of info-doughnuts — empty calories of celebrity misdeeds, snuggling animals of different species, and quizzes that guess where you're from (what, you don't know? But we take the tests!).

The idea that the people who use Facebook want smarter, better content than what the Facebook algorithms provide is a seductive one. It makes us all seem secretly insightful, and ready to be profound and conscientious. If only we were given a chance to show that we were smarter than machines!!

Facebook's Newsfeed Is Our Lowbrow Psyche Staring Back at Us

That hypothesis is not playing out. So far, the test hasn't shown that people are secretly craving hard news and political analysis in their Newsfeeds over Upworthy links and pictures of our friends' cats. In fact, the initial results show that the testers like the entertaining stories that conjure instant emotional gratification. "People really want to see stuff that drives a laugh or makes them feel happy, not necessarily information that's super valuable," Facebook Newsfeed product director Adam Mossieri told Levy.

Mossieri did note that the results may change after more testing, and that the current hypothesis is that people want more posts from friends AND more informative content. This is a very small test group, after all.

But just because it's a small test group doesn't mean these findings are wrong. They confirm what the algorithms tell us, what internet traffic tells us: Our appetite for the saccharine often outweighs our desire for the meaty.

In the end, even after all the testing, Facebook's Newsfeed may continue sucking simply because we just straight up prefer terrible digital content. The internet's viral shit machine is oiled by clicks willingly given. [Backchannel]