Facebook has been getting a lot of criticism lately for its Trending list. What was assumed by many to be an algorithm tailored to a combination of your usage habits and those of the world at large – “Trending … is personalized based on a number of factors, including Pages you’ve liked, your location and what’s trending across Facebook,” according to Facebook — also has a human factor.
That’s not necessarily a problem – unless those humans are slanting the “trends” in favor of their politics. That’s what a former Facebook worker told Gizmodo; Facebook says that’s not true.
(And oh, to be a fly on the wall when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg meets with Glenn Beck.)
Nevertheless, I’ve always wondered if “Trending” is chicken or egg. Is it simply a list of highly trafficked stories that may trigger a bandwagon of more attention, or is it intended to goad people into clicking so you can keep up with the rest of America?
The answer is probably “yes.”
Researchers say what’s called the “bandwagon effect” is real and effective. (Indeed, the adoption of Facebook itself by 1.5 billion people is, to some extent, the result of “everybody else is on it.”) But within that groupthink, there should be plenty of room for idiosyncrasy. Just because Facebook says it’s trending doesn’t mean you have to follow the groupthink.
And that’s assuming it’s accurate. Consider my Trending list (pictured above), as of 10:30 a.m. Wednesday:
- Candice Swanepoel reveals sex of baby. I think she’s a model. Right? And she’s having a baby? Terrific. I hope her family’s thrilled.
- Man catches shark in Lacombe, Louisiana. OK.
- Hasidic neighborhood gets Section 8 federal aid. As my friend Robin would say, I’M OUTRAGED!!11!!!1! Seriously, glad somebody revealed this, and now I hope it’s corrected if need be.
- Obama rebukes Rutgers students over protest of Condoleezza Rice. Fine.
- Robin Wright wanted same money as Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards.” She deserves it.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease caused by inflammation, not acid. Again, glad this has been discovered.
- Nice play by Kyrie Irving in Cavs game.
- Billy Bush joins “Today.” Yawn.
- Bill Clinton flew jet of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein many times.
- Kesha won’t perform at Billboard Awards; Dr. Luke pulls rank.
So now I’m informed as to what everybody’s talking about. (Pardon me: “EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT!!!1!!!11!!!” But I’m not clicking on any of them. The Swanepoel story is pure clickbait – apparently she posted a picture. I don’t understand the fascination with sharks – another clickbait regular. I learned all I needed about the Section 8 and gastroesophageal stories from the headlines. The Obama and Clinton stories are just cud for the political chatterers and their enablers; I’m not biting (or chewing, as the case may be). Not a fan of the morning shows, though I understand their financial importance (their journalistic importance is another story). Robin Wright builds on the actresses-are-paid-less narrative; that’s worthy of a longer story, but again, headline says it all here. Kesha is also part of a bigger narrative, and though I hope she frees herself, I wouldn’t be paying attention to her career otherwise.
Oh, and I saw a good bit of the Cavs’ game last night.
So why are these on my list? I’ve written about actresses and Kesha, and I follow politics. But besides the value of simply knowing what’s in the national conversation, the Trending list is no more important to my well-being than, say, my grocery list. In fact, it’s probably less important, because it’s a distant hum that will be changing all day, but my grocery list reminds me of the necessity of buying Double Chocolate Milano cookies.
And, honestly, I couldn’t care less about Candice Swanepoel.
Maybe I’m not the target audience. You do get more set in your ways – and more skeptical – as you get older. (I hope.) If the Trending list is click chum, I’m not biting. I’m much more curious about individual links posted by friends. (Word of mouth beats Trending every time.)
If Facebook is tracking my clicks (and I’m sure they are), perhaps a more useful service – and algorithm – might be along the lines of a list called “Have you considered this?” If I’m reading too many ideological columnists, perhaps it can suggest data-driven essayists. If I’m looking at too many cat pictures, maybe it can open my eyes to smart animal stories. You’d have to opt in – that way there can’t be complaints about getting Charles Krauthammer when you expected the Daily Kos.
Yeah, I know. We all say we want less of the same, but our behavior says otherwise. And maybe we don’t know what we want at all. Those are trends that are hard to counter.