Content and Communications Manager, Hannah, discusses fiction, fake news and Facebook in our latest blog.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to spend less time on Facebook, prompted by disappointment in myself at how much time I spend on the app. Drawn in by a little red notification icon, before I know it I have spent much longer than intended scrolling, sharing, commenting and reacting, or even purchasing something I hadn’t known I wanted.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling. One of my friends deactivated his Facebook account on 1st January, and another has gone as far as replacing his iPhone with a new Nokia 3310 model (i.e. no Internet – texts, calls, and Snake only)! I’ve not carried out my pledge to quite the same extent, but I have removed the Facebook app from my phone, in a bid to avoid being drawn in to it by the notifications…

My seed of Facebook-doubt was sown earlier in 2017, when I attended Fiction and Fake News Meet Management at the Cambridge Judge Business School. Guy Rolnik explained how Facebook and Google are now responsible for around 70 percent of external traffic referrals to news outlets’ digital assets, and became an advertising duopoly in 2014.

He highlighted that, because of Facebook’s dedication to increasing its advertising revenue, the platform’s algorithm is designed to ‘delight’ us, in order for us to remain on the platform for longer than we otherwise might. Rolnik referred to it as ‘junk feed’: in the same way as junk food is cheap, easy and addictive, junk feed is free, easily consumed and equally addictive! I recently read about how the platform’s features are purposefully designed with the intention of keeping users hooked – from the fact that the notification badges are red, to how we ‘pull-to-refresh’:

“This is when you swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears. Each swipe is like gambling at a slot machine: you just don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it is the most beautiful photo of your friend’s puppy. Sometimes it is an advertisement. Technology has now far surpassed this mechanism as feeds can be instantly updated. But social media platforms continue to use it because it is so addictive.”

Even those of us who don’t mind social platforms holding our data should still be aware that the more time we spend using the platforms, the more they learn about our behaviour, and the more they can refine their targeting capabilities. Have you ever looked at the categories Facebook attributes to you in your ad preferences? It can be quite interesting seeing what they think about you… In many ways, this user information is extremely positive, as it means that the ads we see should be relevant to us. It also means that advertisers should be able to get more effective results from their campaigns, as such precise targeting offers better assurances of advertising spend being able to reach the right audience.

What is essential for Facebook to remember, however, is that it has only been able to become such a dominant player in advertising because of its popularity with its users – popularity that came about because it provided an excellent experience, enabling online communities to thrive. Jeopardising user experience ultimately jeopardises the platform’s ability to deliver successful advertising campaigns.

Thankfully, in January, a few weeks before Facebook’s 12th birthday, it overhauled how it ranks the posts, videos and photos that appear in users’ feeds “to put what friends and family have to say first”. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, acknowledged that, as a result of the recent change, “the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” but that “the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable”.

This can only be positive! Whereas to some advertisers the algorithm update has caused alarm, I see the update in a much more positive light. Its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” and, by recognising that this was being put at risk by an oversaturated ‘junk feed’, Facebook may have actually saved itself from itself. I foresee users enjoying engaging with the platform once again – and even finding it safe enough to re-download the app!