Maybe three years ago, Facebook hit a zenith for me. I formed the opinion that Facebook is what the Internet was always meant to be: interactive, informative, and fun. People only shared the things they cared about. Of course, that included the occasional cat video or meme, but there was a lot of interesting news, opinion, and debate being shared as well. I used to have long arguments with friends—and their friends—over controversial posts.
Then, something changed. “Shareable content” was invented, and very quickly, Facebook descended into a mire of clickbait, uncomfortably desperate ads, and formulaic headlines.
Here’s a hint: if a headline poses a yes/no question, the answer is no. If it tells you that you won’t believe what happens next, it’s probably lying to you; you’ll believe it. And you’ve already heard of the top ten weirdest travel destinations, because your sister-in-law wrote the list (and it was sponsored by Air Canada).
Now, the only news I get on my Facebook page is delivered by the pages I already like: the New York Times, or the Economist, or I Fucking Love Science. Which is great, because I like the content they share. But it’s also a problem: the content I used to get was curated not by the editors of large media enterprises (or Elise Andrew), but by my friends. Even if I choose to follow alternative blogs (which I do) or a South African community radio station, I have made the choice to seek them out. Facebook has just amalgamated my own preferences for me.
In other words, Facebook has now become not what the Internet was always supposed to be, but rather just what the Internet was ten years ago. Thanks to algorithms that keep small voices small by favouring paid content, and keeping social circles small by selecting which friends their users see posts from, mixing of opinions is, in large part, gone.
It’s hard to find content that challenges you. It may promise to do so (“Which Archer character am I, Buzzfeed?”), but it’s not often that a truly controversial post makes it through the filters.
The headlines have started to spread. A friend of mine told me about a Globe and Mail meeting in which then-editor-in-chief John Stackhouse said that Globe headlines needed to start looking more “Buzzfeed-y.” That’s right. Those terrible headlines that nine times out of ten lead to “fool-me-once” disappointment in oneself are going to start appearing in national newspapers that have been around for more than a century.
That’s not to say the mainstream media doesn’t need to change, or even that a change of headline style is a bad idea. Maybe a little “You’ll Never Guess What Duffy said to Harper’s Chief of Staff” would do the mainstream media some good.
The danger is in the content itself. And if Facebook’s sharing algorithms mean the future of the Globe and Mail is top tens and cute animals, then the dystopian grey goo of quizzes and clever advertising has won, and may God be with us all. ♦
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