The more time you spend on the site sharing personal information, the more money Facebook makes off of you
Last week, Facebook released a set of colorful mock-up images of its brand new campus in Menlo Park, California. Unlike other tech headquarter fortresses, the building is designed to connect with the outside world.
Theres plans for a hotel, a large public park which will play host to movie nights and food trucks and a winding pedestrian overpass which, literally, bridges the space between city residents and the social media giant. Its lush and sprawling; the opposite of an ivory tower. Which makes it easy to forget that the amenities shield a behemoth 962,000-square-foot structure that will house Facebooks ever-growing ranks.
The building is an apt metaphor for the public persona that tech companies like Facebook increasingly struggle to maintain. Its hard to portray yourself as an idealistic, person-centered enterprise when youre actually a powerful, profitable corporation.
And now, this week, comes Facebooks announcement Wednesday that as the company outgrows its current offices it is, once again, shifting the mysterious algorithm that governs your news feed. Now, each users landing page will contain more posts from friends, more posts from family and fewer pieces of actual news. A friendly blog post released the information, not as press release, but as a set of core values.
After all, as Adam Mosseri, the vice president of product management for Facebooks news feed, wrote, Facebook is in the business of giving you what you want.
Thats why stories in news feed are ranked so that people can see what they care about first, and dont miss important stuff from their friends, read the note. If the ranking is off, people dont engage, and leave dissatisfied. (The Washington Post has an annotated version of the announcement, which is worth a read.)
What he doesnt say: theres an incentive for Facebook to prioritize comments and updates from its users over news organizations content even though Facebook is currently the top news site for the coveted millennial demographic, as a Pew Research Center study found. Facebook wants you to post your personal info so it can turn around and sell it to advertisers.
Yet the sentiment that Facebook makes decisions to keep its users happy isnt false. Facebook wants to satisfy its users that is, if you define satisfaction as pushing out whatever content will keep users glued to Facebook for as much time as possible. Its something the company does exceptionally well. In its April earnings call, Facebook announced an increase in the amount of time people were spending on its sites: its 1.6 billion monthly users spend an average of 50 minutes daily on the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, up from 40 minutes in 2014.
That may not sound like a lot of time, but in the world of the internet, its huge. As the New York Times pointed out, 50 minutes is one sixteenth of the average persons daily time awake. Its more than double the 17 minutes of time the average user spends on its nearest competitor, YouTube. And Facebook shows no signs of abating its quest for your time. The better we do at providing what people most want to see, the more likely they are to return to the app and spend time, a Facebook spokeswoman told the Times last month.
But Facebook routinely masks its own business interests when making announcements about the future of the company. Take the April rollout of Instant Articles, a platform allowing publishers to place their content directly within Facebook. The company pitched the development as a problem solver for readers: a way to make load times on mobile devices quicker. Yet long load times hadnt stopped Facebooks users from reading news on their phones.
What Facebook failed to mention is that Instant Articles is very, very good for Facebook. It allows Facebook to retain its users within the site, giving them much more access to data on their users activity and, eerily, much more control over journalistic content. (Facebook already holds an outsized influence over the press, sending sites more referral traffic than any other site.)
This power is what makes Facebooks decisions so important: never before has a single company had so much sway over what we read and what news we consume. Changes in Facebooks algorithm, which come unannounced and unexplained, send media companies scrambling to make up for the dramatic dip in traffic that often follows. And, theoretically, this control could manifest in more sinister ways, such as when tech blog Gizmodo broke news that editors of Facebooks trending feed routinely suppressed conservative news.
Yet when Facebook releases changes, the company rarely owns this power. Instead, its cloaked in the the guise of satisfying users. Trust us, says Facebook; were building a better user experience. It relies on the trust that allows us to share our most intimate relationships with the site. But when you log onto Facebook, every post you see is the result of a decision made by a person employed at a company that posted $5.38bn in revenue in the first quarter of this year. A person who is likely concerned with their companys bottom line.
Facebook needs you to forget that fact, but you shouldnt.
Read more: www.theguardian.com