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Facebook Overhauls News Feed and The Emergence Of New Gatekeepers

Facebook has introduced the most consequential changes to its News Feed in years.

The fundamental difference between the internet and any other traditional medium such as TV is in mindset. When the former represents freedom and abundance, the latter is about scarcity and control. While this reality has changed with the recent decisions from Facebook and Youtube, it deserves to be understood. Let me explain.

TV runs in a programming period of 24 hours, meaning you have to fit your all programs, be it news or the entertainment, within this time period of the day. This calls for a decision that is of making a choice of what program to air or what news to show and what not to. This opportunity to making the choice of what programs to air offers an unprecedented power to TV and people involved in the decision-making process.

The people who consume news or entertainment through television have no say in the matter of airing a show. They are bound to watch whatever the decision makers want them to watch. This is no small matter. This means TV and people who run channels can dictate your agenda thus your priorities and thoughts and everything in between. They can control public opinion and influence polls and shake up a government. This is what gatekeepers do, they control and gain power from that control and apply that power to their own benefits.

The structure of TV and the entertainment industry has enabled a small group of people to control and then sometimes take advantage of the rest of us.

And then the internet came and destroyed TV along with the gatekeepers and its mindset until recently when major platforms on the internet started to behave like gatekeepers, albeit more notorious ones because their extent of control is more pervasive.

As I said earlier, the internet represents a mindset of abundance and freedom. The medium itself is a result of collective efforts. It finally has enabled common people to express themselves, voice their dissent, organize, share their opinion, show their support or opposition at scale.

For instance, youtube allows anyone to become a star without being exploited by gatekeepers like Harvey Weinstein or similar goons in other parts of the world. Facebook allows you to express yourself, connect with fellow men and make a difference collectively. No one has the power or authority to decide what video you watch or what news you consume and how and when you do it. This is has been the expectation from the internet and it is not the case anymore.

The recent decisions of two monopoly-like platforms Facebook and Youtube show that they are now the new gatekeepers and given the power these platforms have accrued over the years this is a matter of grave concern.

While two separate announcements, one from Facebook about changes in its news feed and another from Youtube about a popular YouTuber, bring this reality to the consciousness of common people, this change has been in work for a long time. From The Year Tech Goes Mainstream and Our Tech’s Person Of The Year 2018:

“The first wave of the global technological revolution started with the high hope that tech would liberate humanity, democratize opportunity, reduce inequality, and give power to the common people.

However, as American intellectual Lawrence Lessig beautifully illustrates in his wonderful book The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, the tech revolution has failed us.

Over the past years, we have come to see the death of the open internet. Technology has helped a new wave of inequality. It has concentrated the opportunities and power in the hands of a handful of people and corporations and created an environment of winners take it all. And corporations and authoritarian regimes have successfully completed a counter-revolution turning tech into a tool for manipulating and controlling the common people.”

Facebook changes news feed

From The New York Times:

“Facebook has introduced sweeping changes to the kinds of posts, videos and photos that its more than two billion members will see most often, saying on Thursday that it would prioritize what their friends and family share and comment on while de-emphasizing content from publishers and brands.

The shift is the most significant overhaul in years to Facebook’s News Feed, the cascading screen of content that people see when they log into the social network. Over the next few weeks, users will begin seeing fewer viral videos and news articles shared by media companies. Instead, Facebook will highlight posts that friends have interacted with — for example, a photo of your dog or a status update that many of them have commented on or liked.”

As the Times pointed out this is the most consequential change in years to Facebook’s News Feed. Again from the Times on the likely impacts on the business and users:

“The repercussions from Facebook’s new News Feed changes will almost certainly be far-reaching. Publishers, nonprofits, small business and many other groups rely on the social network to reach people, so de-emphasizing their posts will most likely hurt them. Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management at Facebook, who is responsible for running the News Feed, acknowledged that “there will be anxiety” from partners and publishers who often complain about the constant changes in what will be shown across the network.”

Over the past years, Facebook has turned itself, along with being the most powerful social network, into world’s most powerful news distribution channel as well. Personally, I use Facebook for news discovery and many of the stories I consume daily come through Facebook. That is true for many other people. With the new overhaul, this reality is about to change.

From Nieman Lab:

“The idea that the value of a piece of news is defined by likes and comments — that taking in information without getting into a back-and-forth with your uncle about it is somehow unworthy — is actually a profoundly ideological statement.”

Although the change looks sudden, it is not. Facebook has been experimenting this change for a while now. Previously, the company experimented with introducing two separate feeds in a host of countries to see how users react.

The repercussion of this change will not be only commercial, there will far-reaching political ramification of this change as well. Most importantly, it indicates the incredible power imbalance in this relationship between Facebook and its users and it is Facebook who makes the calls.

From Youtube’s Paul Logan Decision by Ben Thompson at Stratechery (Subscribers only):

“Several folks noted that it’s not right to say there aren’t any more gatekeepers: YouTube is one. And that’s correct. Note, though, how much more fraught that makes these decisions: it’s one thing for an editor or station manager to fire someone who screws up; it’s another entirely for a monopoly-like platform to make unilateral decisions.

YouTube is right to be conservative and thoughtful about how they responded — and we would all be well-served to remember the risks of one entity being judge-and-jury no matter how much we may be horrified by the crime in question.”

There are several valid reasons behind Facebook’s decision to change the News Feed. The company has been going through a challenging time over the past several months, particularly 2017 was a challenging year for the social media giant. It had to face regulatory questions as well as greater scrutiny from media and public unlike anytime before in its history and these challenges continue.

Being one of the world’s most powerful platform, it is often hard to find a fine line between your business interest and the interest of the users. However, the reality that Facebook will regularly make this kind of decisions for its users, brands, and publishers in the future is one that we will have to get used to. This has far-reaching repercussion, more damaging than the mere small business and communication gains.

From a 2015 report of Quartz:

“This is more than a matter of semantics. The expectations and behaviors of the next billion people to come online will have profound effects on how the internet evolves. If the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, businesses, startups, developers, nonprofits, publishers, and anyone else interested in communicating with them will also, if they are to be effective, go to Facebook. That means they, too, must then play by the rules of one company. And that has implications for us all.”

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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