Your Facebook ‘control’

When Jay Rosen is aggravated, it is always a good read, Facebook’s phony claim that “you’re in charge”:

It’s not us exercising judgment, it’s you. We’re not the editors, you are. If this is what Facebook is saying — and I think it’s a fair summary of Marra’s comments to the New York Times — the statement is a lie.

I say a lie, not just an untruth, because anyone who works day-to-day on the code for News Feed knows how much judgment goes into it. It simply isn’t true that an algorithmic filter can be designed to remove the designers from the equation. It’s an assertion that melts on contact. No one smart enough to work at Facebook could believe it. And I’m not sure why it’s sitting there unchallenged in a New York Times story. For that doesn’t even rise to the level of “he said, she said.” It’s just: he said, poof!

Now, if Greg Marra and his team want to make the point that in perfecting their algorithm they’re not trying to pick the day’s most important stories and feature them in the News Feed, the way an old fashioned front page or home page editor would, and so in that sense they are not really “editors” and don’t think in journalistic terms, fine, okay, that’s a defensible point. But don’t try to suggest that the power has thereby shifted to the users, and the designers are just channeling your choices. (If I’m the editor of my News Feed, where are my controls?)

Programmers refer to the phenomenon as GIGO. You could change the noun, it doesn’t have to be Garbage, but you’re still getting the high dose of Facebook’s choice. Because you don’t have control.

But, then, we knew that. We’ve long since known that. We’re ceding control, aren’t we? Only now we’re starting to realize what that means when the control isn’t to our liking. But that’s beside the point, Professor Rosen is discussing the journalism involved rather than just Facebook.

Also, “Friend, Like, Comment, Unfollow, Hide” aren’t controls. They’re feeders. They’re sensitivity meters to the algorithm, feeders. But that’s all they are. Someone else has the control point: Facebook, specifically the programmers.

The algorithm dictates what you see, which changes what it is to be a tech company, which is now a publisher. And what becomes of a publisher? Perhaps they turn into a speech engine?


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