How Facebook can become useful again

Published in The Gleaner on 23 Apr 2014 4 min read

When I signed up on February 22, 2005, had one purpose (and one million users).  There was no Like button, no App Center, no News Feed.  It was just a directory, a digital phonebook of young college faces and contact information.  Instead of coding your own gaudy website on GeoCities, Mark Zuckerberg’s fledgling company gave you a handsome profile in royal blue, with links to your schoolmates.  That was it—you couldn’t even add photos.  It was simple, straightforward and useful.

Fast forward.  On its tenth anniversary, Facebook is the most populous service in human history (1.3 billion users, or 1/6th of the planet).  It allows you to share everything, absorbing a staggering 15 million pictures, 200 million links and 400 million messages in 70 languages every single hour.  And it’s everywhere—installed on all your devices, embedded in all your favourite sites.  By any measure, an unstoppable global hegemon.

Except for one thing.  I’ve stopped using it, and if you have life goals, so have you.  The ubiquitous social network has devolved into a sewage stream of shameless clickbait (You Won’t Believe What This Supermodel Did!), derivative videos (LeBroning et al), and banal comments on banal events—in other words, a complete waste of time.

Anything of interest on Facebook is buried in an avalanche of notifications

Anything of interest is quickly buried in an avalanche of notifications and invitations.  (Joseph likes Mary’s photo!  Judas gave a life in Candy Crush Saga!  Peter and Paul are now friends!)  Far from strengthening our social networks, Facebook has reverted us into obsessive, narcissistic tweenagers, endlessly preening and passing notes in some vapid virtual classroom.

I’m not alone.  Despite its unprecedented scale, Facebook is hemorrhaging millennials by the millions, the very demographic it initially bewitched.  This is what economists call a leading indicator.  Like birds responding to barometric pressure before a hurricane, this defection of youngsters suggests a coming crisis for the Big Blue app.

Mr Zuckerberg sees the danger.  In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, the photo-sharing service with 100 million users.  In February, it acquired the chat service WhatsApp for an eye-watering US$19 billion (roughly Jamaica’s GDP), even though it has its own Messenger app.  In addition to spending its way into continued relevance, the company’s recent efforts deliberately hide their parentage—like the smartphone app Paper, which integrates your News Feed into a magazine layout.  The subtext seems to be a tacit admission that its core product—the Facebook social network—is broken.

To fix it, let’s take a peek under the hood.  Facebook assigns a score to every post depending on its kind (photo, status update, and so on).  It also bumps the score, like a biased professor, if the post is from someone you share with often.  Then it populates your feed with the high-scoring posts.  But even with bright engineers constantly tweaking the formula, a visit to Facebook is still an exercise in skimming and scrolling, as you separate the wheat from the chaff yourself.  And there’s a lot of chaff.

Reddit shows you its best content right away, every time you visit

On the community news service Reddit, by contrast, users directly vote other users’ posts up and down (somewhat akin to clicking Like buttons).  The content most valued in individual networks, or subreddits, bubbles to the top; the least valued sinks to the bottom.  If a post is boosted enough, it bumps onto a global list, which Reddit calls ‘the front page of the Internet’.  Each user sees that page and whichever subreddits interest her.  In other words, Reddit shows you its best stuff right away, every time you visit, and scrolling yields diminishing returns.  Zero chaff.

To regain its mojo, Facebook needs to overcome its moral queasiness and borrow Reddit’s meritocracy.  Introduce a Dislike button, and treat our upvotes and downvotes not as independent actions, but as collective referenda on each other’s posts and photos.  Of course, your feed will still reflect your interests and relationships, but judgment on individual posts will be swift, ruthless and efficient.  Instantly, Facebook would stop being that thing you do when you should be doing something else, and start being genuinely useful again.  But if you’re undecided whether this is a good idea, share it on Reddit.  One way or another, in a few hours you’ll have your answer.

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