What Happens When You Starve the Facebook Brain?

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The Facebook algorithm, the “brain” which decides what content to feature, what content to bury, and what content to put in front of you, is being tested mightily of late. One writer tried to game the Facebook brain by disguising his posts as major life events in hopes of seeing them rise to the top. Another tried to overwhelm the brain (and himself) by clicking “like” on literally everything he saw.

Elan Morgan had a different idea altogether. Instead of gaming the Facebook brain, she more or less ignored it. Taking the opposite tack from Mat Honan, the Wired writer who liked all content for 48 hours without discrimination (and suffered for it), Morgan stopped clicking like altogether. She describes her troubles with the entire concept:

I actually felt pangs of guilt over not liking some updates, as though the absence of my particular Like would translate as a disapproval or a withholding of affection. I felt as though my ability to communicate had been somehow hobbled. The Like function has saved me so much comment-typing over the years that I likely could have written a very quippy, War-and-Peace-length novel by now.

Rather than give the Facebook brain a deluge of contradictory feedback as Honan did, Morgan gave it none at all, leaving the Facebook brain with little data with which to base its curation on. The result? Well, in a way, she got Facebook – the one we all used to like – back:

Now that I am commenting more on Facebook and not clicking Like on anything at all, my feed has relaxed and become more conversational.

Imagine that. This is what drew me to Facebook to begin with, when it still seemed to be a platform mainly for college students. It distinguished itself from MySpace by having a clean, uncomplicated interface, and with a news stream that didn’t necessesitate going to an individual’s page to interact. And when you wanted to interact, to comment or ask a question, it was quick and easy.

But when Facebook turned so strongly in the direction of heavy algorithm-based curation as almost literally everyone began posting on it, it turned into something that resembled a WalMart lined with cheesy inspirational posters. Community and interaction became incidental to passive consumption of content. Passive, save for the “like.”

Morgan saw this too:

I had been suffering a sense of disconnection within my online communities prior to swearing off Facebook likes. It seemed that there were fewer conversations, more empty platitudes and praise, and a dearth of political and religious pageantry. It was tiring and depressing. After swearing off the Facebook Like, though, all of this changed. I became more present and more engaged, because I had to use my words rather than an unnuanced Like function. I took the time to tell people what I thought and felt, to acknowledge friend’s lives, to share both joys and pains with other human beings. It turns out that there is more humanity and love in words than there are in the use of the Like.

I think this is an experiment very much worth pursuing. As Mike Daisey wrote (on Facebook) in response to Morgan’s piece, “[I]t might help make it closer to being a discussion board, which is what I wish it to be.” Same here.

But there are different perspectives on the “like.” Anil Dash wrote back in 2011 how he uses likes, Twitter “favoriting,” and other forms of social media up-voting with specific intention:

[F]avoriting or liking things for me is a performative act, but one that’s accessible to me with the low threshold of a simple gesture. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen online, but if I could smile at a person in the real world in a way that would radically increase the likelihood that others would smile at that person, too, then I’d be doing that all day long.

This idea, likes as a stand-in for in-person smiles and nods, is part of what Morgan finds problematic, that they are substanceless. “The Like is the wordless nod of support in a loud room,” she writes. “It’s the easiest of yesses, I-agrees, and me-toos.”

There’s nothing wrong with yesses and me-toos, of course. Sometimes that’s really all that’s worth saying, and that’s okay. I think the trick is to know when a mere “like” or “fav” truly is sufficient, when a more substantive response is warranted, and when it’s best, or just okay, to let something go by without expressing an opinion at all. After all, not every opinion needs expressing, does it?

I keep coming back to the idea of using Facebook and other social media with intention, knowing that there is an algorithm behind this platform that dominates so much of our online experiences, and acting on that understanding. That might mean you become far more judicious with your likes, and favoring prose responses over a mere thumbs-up. And maybe it means you eschew a reaction on Facebook’s platform altogether (thereby bypassing the Facebook brain altogether), and put your response into a blog post, a tweet, or a private email.

Just because something starts or is discovered on Facebook doesn’t mean it has to stay there. That brain doesn’t own you.

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About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.


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