I only feel slightly snubbed for not being asked by the New York Times to chime in with my thoughts on “How to Fix Facebook.” But I’ll chime in here.
The first thing to point out, however, is the old adage:
“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”
All code is political. The designs of the Facebook platform aren’t by accident and the consequences of that design could be predicted. Facebook is a place to create personal identity. Compare that to Twitter which is a place to share “what’s happening now.”
As a result, your experience on each platform is different.
I call this the “Dharma of Facebook” and have written about it in detail here. Fake news is downstream of Facebook’s true purpose. To fix Fake news you would have to swim WAY upstream. And Facebook has no real incentive to go that far.
Facebook is where many people get their news. But it is not designed for that. It is designed to build identity.
— David Cohn (@Digidave) November 21, 2016
Facebook is designed to build identity. News is just clay to help somebody do this. The entire news industry has changed its editorial approach to better serve this need.
News is meant to inform somebody about the world. But on Facebook, news is used to help somebody inform their friends about how they feel about the world. What values they identify with and what they disavow. News provides the moment and ability to virtue signal.
Again — compare this to another platform like Twitter or Reddit where personal identity isn’t as central to the service, and news/information becomes more of a good in-and-of-itself. You don’t Retweet the piece of breaking news to signal to people how you feel about it, but because something just happened and people need to know about it.
The “problem” is that humans and human identity can be an all-encompassing proposition. What you buy, what you eat, how you vote, what content you consume, who you befriend — can all be interpreted as to say something or mean something intrinsically about you. This does not NEED to be the case, but it CAN be the case. It is sufficient, but not necessary.
Does wrapping these things up with how we build personal identity alter how we think of news, shopping, group communication, etc. etc? Yes. All these activities have to distort themselves just a little to accommodate the platform and its true Dharma. (Note: Dharma is a hard word to translate — there is no Western word for it. Here’s one line from Wikipedia which might help to give context: “The root is “dhri”, which means ‘to support, hold, or bear’. It is the thing that regulates the course of change by not participating in change, but that principle which remains constant.”)
Again — it’s a feature, not a bug. Identity is the element of Facebook that is at its core. Everything else must adapt to support this. Because identity can be so all-encompassing, Facebook has been able to increase its features and offerings AND stay true to its main purpose of building identity. But those features and offerings still have to bend a little to maintain coherence within the Facebook Dharma. This is precisely the point.
A Real Solution
Facebook should break up its features into more concrete and discrete products. The recent move to take content from Pages and put it into the sidebar “Explore” section makes perfect sense in this spirit. It scares the shit out of publishers — but it’s actually part of a potential long-term solution to our current predicament. That word “exploration” isn’t just for users. This is a space where Facebook itself is “exploring” how it can approach these experiences, features and offerings free from the context of the newsfeed — which is dominated by identity.
Instagram, owned by Facebook, doesn’t have the same problem. Their main purpose isn’t as tied to identity. That’s not to say identity is absent from the product — but primarily, Instagram is about capturing and sharing beautiful moments. Those moments don’t have to define the person taking the picture. It’s possible for Facebook as a company to successfully run products that aren’t tied to identity.
But identity is their bread and butter. It’s how they command the largest audience in the history of mankind (that’s not an exaggeration). But if Facebook wants to “fix” its “problem” — it has to begin by separating those experiences which are perverted when they are too intimately tied to identity. News needs to be tied to an experience that is designed to inform. Shopping needs to be tied to an experience that is tied to needs/desires.
This represents a more head on collision with other tech giants. And maybe Facebook wanted to see how much ground it could gain before having to acknowledge it needs to break-up its offerings. For whatever reason, its initial idea that it offer all services to all people under one main experience has reached a breaking point.
At least — that’s my hot take. You’re welcome NYT.