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What Happens In The Real World, Just Like The Movie

Digital technology is unforgiving. Ones and zeros. Digital technology business is ruthless. The ones take all, no sharing. The zeros leave no trace, filtered out. Woe be onto those who expect a different outcome.

zappedSocial media icon Facebook has again, literally and figuratively, tweaked the algorithm. After months of playing nice with publishers by creating the mobile-friendly Instant Articles feature and delivering video links to the News Feed, “family and friends” referrals are taking priority. News media sources that don’t produce “shares” just aren’t that interesting.

A big change in the newsfeed algorithm in April sent enormous Facebook referral traffic to a wide swath of news websites. Publishers saw payday or thought they did. The latest algorithm tweak won’t necessarily devastate top-tier media brands: they can pay to play through sponsored content and native ads. The rest could be voted out of Facebookistan.

With this algorithm change the company published and publicly released News Feed Values, the guidelines giving order to further tweaking. “Connecting people with their friends and family” tops the list. News sources follows, then entertainment. That click-bait headline and publishers who produce them are deprecated, the techies favorite term for being made obsolete. The changes are rolling out now in the US, the rest of the world to follow.

As social media has become the news delivery platform for millions – billions, maybe – publishers and others voice concerns about an echo-chamber, silo effect or filter-bubble. People are naturally predisposed to “like” and “share” news and views they like and share, ignoring the rest. Facebook wants its users to never need drift away from the platform.

“It’s not our place to decide what people should read,” said News Feed product manager Adam Mosseri, quoted by CNNMoney (June 30). “I think that what happens on Facebook is largely reflective of what happens in the real world.” Up with cat videos.

The great social and economic upheavals following the Second World War and the ensuing prosperity in Western economies brought about considerable attention to consumer behavior. Business models shifted attention from producers to buyers. Big consumer products companies like Procter & Gamble invested huge sums to discover why people bought things and how best to take advantage of the spending spree. Business schools pulled together researchers specializing in psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology and economics to present consumer behavior research and courses to MBA students. Early on “family and friends” was identified as the most significant influence on buying and purchase behavior. That has not changed in, like, forever. Advertising people, Facebook’s most faithful financial friends, know this.

Those upheavals, often related to technology, apparent from the early 1950’s through the 1960’s were explored by a variety of thinkers and entered popular conversation. Media people were attracted to Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) and The Medium Is The Massage (1967). The business community, particularly technology, was inspired by Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Future Shock (1970).

Alvin Toffler died this past week. He was 87. He had been a writer and editor at Fortune magazine and crafted many phrases imminently quotable for a business-oriented audience seeking a guide to the future. "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." Future Shock was a prescription for deep, on-going change. “The Information Age,” a phrase they coined, was understood by everybody.

Another phrase was “information overload,” though not original to Future Shock. Gutenberg was criticized for making too many books readily available. Novelty aside, the same was said of broadcasting’s rise and proliferation. Consumer researcher Jacob Jacoby (1974) found that too much information leads to bad decisions.

“It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure,” said new media watcher Clay Shirky to the Web 2.0 conference in 2008. The recent discovery by Facebook engineers that more (news items) led to less (time on Facebook) brought about changes to the News Feed algorithm. If users can’t filter what they see and reduce their information anxiety there’s a neat and easy technical solution.

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