This week was a tale of two social media networks, as design and algorithm updates from Snapchat and Facebook drew ire from users and news organizations alike.
In the new Snapchat update, messages and stories from friends appear on one side of the screen, while other content (from “publishers, creators and the community”) appears by swiping to the other side. In a statement from November, Snapchat said, “Separating social from media has allowed us to build the best way to communicate with friends … while addressing many of the problems that plague the Internet today.”
As an avid user of Snapchat, I can’t say that I am ever bothered by seeing content from friends and media on the same screen. I think part of growing up with technology (and, for me, attending a high school which focused on 21st-century skills) meant developing the ability to critically judge online content. Young people, many of whom are complaining about this change, have grown up to be digital citizens; I would say that most people have the ability to differentiate between content from various sources. (Perhaps the spread of fake news disproves that statement. But I digress.)
There were widespread negative reactions to the update, with some even threatening to stop using Snapchat because of it. Not everyone, it seems, feels the need to separate content from friends and others.
Facebook’s algorithm update is in a faintly similar vein—they are now prioritizing “social” content from family and friends, instead of “media” content posted by news organizations (as well as content from businesses and brands). But unlike Snapchat, Facebook hasn’t simply relocated that content to another page on the app. They’ve changed the algorithm so it’s less likely to show up in the first place.
The move is, obviously, a blow to publications who derive traffic from social media. But it’s also unfortunate for consumers. I’m sure some people are glad they won’t be seeing news content on Facebook—but for a lot of people, and especially young people, social media has become a place to consume news. This is the case for me. I have “liked” several news pages on Facebook, but even before this algorithm announcement I noticed that I rarely saw those articles on my feed. Instead, I saw countless memes and videos shared by friends; and when I logged on a few hours later, I would see the exact same content.
It’s interesting to note the timing of Facebook’s decision. It’s been in the works since last year, Mark Zuckerberg said in his post announcing the update. But it also comes at a time when Facebook is under scrutiny for its role in selling ad space to Russians and being a hotbed of fake news and misinformation during the 2016 U.S. election.
This algorithm change could certainly be perceived as a surface-level fix for the issue of fake news: instead of directly addressing the problem so that users are shown reputable news, their algorithm will now show less news overall. In terms of their ongoing fake news issues, this change doesn’t really help anyone. It could even make things worse, since accurate news stories aren’t prioritized to set the record straight; not to mention that friends and family (whose content is prioritized) could still share links to erroneous or fake stories.
As a young person who uses social media on a daily, if not hourly, basis, Facebook’s change isn’t in line with what I want to see on the app. Most of my friends don’t even use Facebook to do more than share funny videos. When I log onto Facebook, I’m not expecting to see updates from friends; I’m expecting to see articles and posts from pages I’ve liked.
In discussing Facebook’s new algorithm with one of my best friends, we realized that, if anything, Facebook could take a leaf out of Snapchat’s book. They could create two separate news feeds; one for content from friends and family, and one for content from media and businesses (and, even then, there would be value in creating further separations since not all content shared by companies meets the same objective, accurate standards adhered to by news companies).
Social media may have originated as an online social sphere for keeping up with friends and family, but it has evolved into a series of multifaceted platforms with a variety of purposes. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are no longer just places to see pictures of a friend’s new dog; they’re places to engage with news about the world (and messages from brands) in a variety of forms, from articles to videos and everything in between.
Separating the “social” from the “media” seems like a reversal of where social media was naturally headed, and that goes for both Facebook and Snapchat’s updates. Perhaps instead of assuming what content people want to be prioritized (or separated), social media platforms could start by asking consumers what content is important to them. Because I think for a lot of us, taking the “media” out of “social media”, or even simply separating the two, is not what we want to see.