Downworthy? Unworthy?

Profoundly troubling news on the changes to the Facebook algorithm: Upworthy’s traffic spiked in November, and then following a change to the news feed algorithm, suffered a 46 % traffic decline over two months. Business Insider:  

The drop raises a few questions.

  • Did Facebook’s algorithm change wipe out half of Upworthy’s traffic?

  • Was it designed to?

  • In other words, are the people at Facebook set on preventing Upworthy stories from dominating the News Feed, as has been reported?

Those are some great questions. And while I hate the She Did Something, Then He Did Something. What happened next will make your eyeballs literally explode-type headlines as much as — or, judging by my Facebook feed, more than — most people, this is really unsettling. 

Why? Because this is clear evidence of two things:

First, a shift in Facebook away from a more “net neutrality”, people-driven virality in which all content gets roughly the same kind of treatment towards a business-driven, money-buys-access virality. That means that Facebook is transitioning away from being a tool for people towards people being tools for Facebook. 

Second, of how difficult it is, now, to do business online without Facebook on your side. The viral content producers are not your average kind of website, in that they are completely dependent on social media. But they are canaries in the coalmine for changes which might, eventually hit everyone who uses Facebook for activism or any other kind of social activity involving more than a few people. That’s fine when you’re sharing videos of cute marriage proposals, but imagine trying to run something important, like, say, the revolution in Egypt while having to pay for sponsored content on Facebook. 

In fact, I think the general point may be better put that Facebook has quite simply become a part of the infrastructure of being alive. A central part in the exchanges that make up our life. When that conduit of who we are starts to shift towards being more for-money instead of being for-people, we should be deeply concerned. 

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2 comments
  1. F. said:

    Can’t stand Upworthy but this is definitely troubling. If only there was a way people could directly pass on links and information online to be seen by those they choose…wait a minute, isn’t that how social sharing came about? Social media companies that actually vet THAT are treading on thin ice.

    • Release said:

      Trouble is that social sharing has been shaped by especially Facebook and other corporate actors who don’t have civic good at the centre of their list of goals.

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