Facebook recently began testing a “trending” content feature, in the site’s latest move to try to morph into a social-network-cross-news-aggregator-slash-search-engine-and-rumored-future-browser. Unfortunately, the move is completely contrary to Facebook’s own tagline of helping users “connect and share with the people in your life,” as well as going against the role which new media sites have come to play in today’s mediascape.
Looking at new such developments online I often have two contrasting reactions – one as a user, the everyday (if high-end) news consumer, and one as the editor of a news site. With this new initiative, Facebook has managed to traverse all boundaries; I hate it with either hat on.
A brief sojourn and some pictorial assistance to explain what I’m complaining about here: Facebook’s new trending articles and videos feature is a strip with a scrolling mechanism which appears arbitrarily in the News Feed, at unclear intervals. That is to say, if you scroll down your News Feed, every so often you’ll find a bar labeled “trending articles” or “trending videos,” with up to three featured articles and a scrolling mechanism.
Each article or video – invariably light and trashy in nature and with little to no journalistic value – appears with the thumbnail of a Facebook friend who (for whatever reason) read or watched the material in question. More accurately, the friend clicked on the link; there’s no telling whether they actually read the article, watched the video, or – more important – enjoyed it or appreciated it in any way.
All of the material seems to come from news organizations such as the Huffington Post and Yahoo!News, or video sources Socialcam and Viddy, with which Facebook has content agreements.
The current design is a slimmed-down take on a previous version which was tested the month before last, aggregating numerous articles one on top of each other and taking up significant space in the News Feed. One thing I will say for the latest version is that it is far less intrusive space-wise and the design is simple, functional and fairly easy on the eye.
But while this version is easier to swallow, it puts the whole nature of Facebook as today’s prime example of social media into question. Social media sites allow users to either communicate with friends and acquaintances directly, interact with specific content posted, or to look into certain brands, causes or groups which interest them as individuals. What’s great about Facebook, as well as Twitter and other sites with “follow” or “subscribe” functions, is that users get to choose. I can elect to turn my News Feed into a news aggregator, and the way I choose to interact with the articles and videos that come into that space then impacts the content which I’ll see, as dictated by the social graph.
The people and pages that I'm connected to on Facebook have sculpted a certain flavor of social media experience which is appropriate for my preferences and needs. In my case, for example, many of my friends work in journalism, think tanks and NGOs and post articles which are in line with my interests. News sources which I “like” then supplement that mix, and friends who consistently post things that annoy me, personal or otherwise, quickly get hidden. What I’m left with is my own individualized news site, which I can customize as I see fit.
Facebook's trending features throws a spanner in the works, inserting random content which is completely irrelevant to me. The headlines I've seen recently cover topics such as sex, celebrities and sports, and in no way resemble articles I typically read.
Ultimately, it’s all about choice. I want to see what my friends like, comment on and share; what they read doesn’t interest me. Facebook’s trending articles could tell me that 50 of my friends had clicked on a story with a sexy headline or picture (they’re all just human after all), but if none of them chooses to share it with me, I don’t think it’s the social media's job to tell me about it.
By the same token, from a news outlet’s point of view, this method of arbitrarily spreading content doesn't work either. It’s in the news organization’s best interests to either select which content is distributed via social media channels itself, or to leave it to the readers to choose what goes viral. Instead, Facebook has created an aggregator with questionable functionality, which judges popularity purely by numbers. If that was in line with sound editorial judgement then every news outlet could simply set up a system whereby the most-read story of the day was at the top of the site, the second-most-read was underneath it, and so on, and let the system self-regulate. The trending articles feature is trying – and failing – to take on the role of news editor.
Happily, I'm not alone in my dislike of the new Facebook feature; the blogosphere is with me. Search “Facebook trending articles,” and you'll find that Google’s autofill brings up “disable,” “remove” and “hide” as the first options, showing what the majority of users are searching for, as well as scores of posts expressing dissatisfaction with the feature. There are even add-ons and browser extensions available to tinker with Facebook settings and block such new and innovative features.
So who is winning here? I would argue no one. Even if giants like Huffington Post and Yahoo!News have agreements with Facebook to take part in the trials of these new elements, the negative result on user sentiment could easily outweigh the page-views garnered.
Content on social media should be user- rather than platform-generated, lest it become yet another way for “the man” to force-feed ideas to the masses. Facebook is so popular partially because users feel like it is “theirs,” and inserting content according to commercial interests – while valid and certainly within the social network's rights – is likely to strip users of that sense of security and individuality. Facebook should chalk this test up as a failure and focus on ways to keep the power of choice with the people and the pages.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post’s Internet desk manager.