Facebook and the Tyranny of the “Like” in a Difficult World
I often talk to people at Facebook, and have friends there. As an academic and as a writer, I sometimes write articles critical of Facebook. I’ve also documented how Facebook has been crucial to empowering dissidents against authoritarian censorship in many contexts. I depend on Facebook to keep up with a far-flung network of friends and family. Many of my friends around the world are involved in social movements and human rights work. Some are refugees themselves. Many face repression in their home country.
And that social network is why I cringe every time I see “engagement” as the metric, without a deeper understanding of how Facebook itself structures that process. “Engagement” can happen to the detriment of the substantive experiences and interaction I want on Facebook — and that Facebook often says is their goal, not just making money.
Let me explain with a sad example. I saw a heartbreaking video recently, two refugee kids wading in water among floating dead bodies, being brought, finally, to safety. A man comforts them, “come on baby,” he says, “we made it,” while the children cry. It broke my heart. This is a topic I write about often, and one my social network cares deeply about, as many are from the war-wrecked region producing these refugees.
I read your piece about native video. So I downloaded the video, and uploaded it natively to Facebook, just to make sure. I published it as a public status update. The first comment I get is on how my friend cannot “like” it.
Of course he cannot like it. Nobody can. How could anyone like such an awful video?
What happens then to the video? Not much. It will mostly get ignored, because my social network has no way to signal to the algorithm that this is something they care about.
I know that you recently made a change to the algorithm so that the time hovered over a post makes a difference. I liked that. I had also suggested it for a long time, whenever I caught the ear of someone at Facebook. But to hover over a post, people have to be shown the post.
I know you have to rank the feed somehow. I know that an unfiltered feed would be overwhelming for most, and that there needs to be some algorithm to help people narrow down the options.
At the moment, this process of algorithmic ranking dominated by the “like” button, or the posted comment. Like is already a problem. However, often one has nothing to say even about a post one finds important, as the second commenter in the post demonstrates. She at least put in “…” but I know some of my friends saw this, were heart-broken, and could not like or comment. I know this because they reached out to me privately. But Facebook does not give them a way to signal “important” or “I care about this” to the algorithm — just a way to “like” something.
Not everything in life is “like”able.
We cannot like refugee kids wading among dead bodies. And we cannot directly tell Facebook’s algorithm that we still care about this, or find it important.
The reverse of this is my inability to signal “like” to my friends weddings and babies, without the algorithm interpreting this to mean “show me more.” As a result, my feed is overflowing with babies and weddings (And really, I do want to congratulate and support my friends but I don’t want to see nothing but their babies for the next two weeks).
I’ve documented this issue before, on how Facebook’s algorithm structures visibility for positive, networked posts (like ice-bucket challenge) while downplaying significant, but less pleasant events, like the Ferguson protests.
Your post says you are open to feedback. So here’s mine: The choice of “like” as a primary signal in the world’s biggest social network has substantive political consequences. Signal collapse, or the choice of conflating signals to the algorithm for calculating visibility with our social signals to each other for sympathy also has consequences to our social interactions, by skewing visibility toward the sympathetic and away from the difficult or distressing. Neither of these design decisions truly support an “open and connected” world.
I understand that having only “like” fits many imperatives of Facebook, from a design, engineering and advertisement perspective. But this is also what it does: it’s hard to talk about refugees and get seen.
Facebook helps structure the world’s attention — one of the most important, crucial resources of 21st century. There are no perfect choices, but the trade-offs are real, and involve human costs.
Thank you for your attention — if you saw this post.
PS. Upon rumors (because Mark Zuckerberg said they were shipping some sort of “dislike” button) below are my tweet reactions.
Facebook does not need a dislike button (as it will quickly find out if it implements one), but rather ways of signaling support and importance, first preferably to the person, and the second preferably to the algorithm. Otherwise, conflating these signals ends up with feeds dominated by baby and vacation pics as signals to person get interpreted as signals to algorithm to keep showing more of the same thing when we mean: “hey, you, I see you and I care”, not “hey, algorithm, show me 30 more pictures of this person’s adorable little one.”