Meta, via Facebook, has taken the place of the newspaper in society. In the pre-Internet days, newspapers did significantly more than report on foreign wars and partisan multi-generation duels. Newspapers were the backbone of our social network. From the newspapers we learned which old classmates had died, who was getting married, who was holding a picnic, what the local schools were up to. Newspapers were critical to our engagement in the community.
Then came social media, and, let’s face it, to most of the American public, that means Facebook. Those who once relied on newspapers moved to this new technology for sharing community news. Newspapers required days of lead time and were not free. Facebook made it painless to announce meetings, deaths, births and marriages, and even to request help in crisis. Papers lost this folksy market, and, predictably, people also stopped subscribing.
So newspapers began to fail, victims of the march of progress. Okay. We’ll miss them about as much as we miss the milkman and the iceman, right?
Wrong. At least, that’s the wrong answer in the face of Meta’s new algorithm for curating the content seen by Facebook users.
I don’t know the algorithm. It’s mired in shadow. I have noticed a pattern, however. I wrote a blog on abortion, a moderate, pro-choice piece. When I shared the link on my Facebook, it did not immediately appear in my own news feed, as previous posts had for 15 years. I asked friends, “Did you see my post?” Most said, “No.” I learned that the algorithm “de-featured” posts that “users might be less interested in seeing.”
In short, you buried my post.
I wrote an op ed for the once-great Baltimore Sun, speaking as a leader of the local Republican Party, imploring his fellows to abandon partisan bickering and court unaffiliated voters and moderate Democrats. I shared a link to the that op ed.
You buried it.
A progressive podcaster read my op ed and invited me for a very successful interview. This lady regularly interviews members of Congress and civil rights leaders. We had a great discussion about how politics could serve people. I shared a link.
You buried it.
But people don’t want to read about politics, right?
My mother died. She was 96 years old. She had been a teacher, part of the historic effort in our County to tame the fears of families in just-desegregated schools. She was a grandmother and great-grandmother, beloved in her community. I shared her obituary on Facebook.
You buried it.
Twenty-five people came to her memorial. Three times that number have since told me that they would have attended, had they seen the notice. It was in the local paper, but Meta has trained people to count on Facebook for such information.
I’m left to surmise that Facebook buried my post so users could have a pleasant experience. Well, gee, I’m sorry the subject of my mother’s death was too unpleasant for your algorithm. I assure you, it was no picnic for her or the people who loved her, either.
Don’t hide behind being a private company. You have taken over a vital social function. You therefore have a responsibility to the public. You took the place of an institution that let us share community information openly. And, for years, you filled that place admirably, no questions asked. With Meta’s new algorithm, all we are left with are questions. And I was left with a sad, almost-empty room filled with mementos of a woman who gave me life and changed the lives of countless others.
Ditch the algorithm. Let the snooze, block and un-friend buttons do their jobs. Let the community guidelines be enforced by people, not by A.I., which has no clue what it’s doing. Fulfill the function that you, whether you intended to or not, have come to fulfill in our communities.
Your website promises to give us a voice. You used to do that. Please, give our voices back.
Steven H. Wilson