A chronological feed wouldn’t fix Facebook

Cathy O'Neil
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Facebook. (Dreamstime/TNS)

There’s been a lot of discussion, since the Facebook Files were leaked, about how to repair the social media platform. A lot of this talk centers on how algorithms manipulate the feeds, and how we users are profiled and fed exactly the content that arouses us to fits of hatred, conspiracy theorizing and even domestic terrorism.

This is true and deeply problematic. But the fix offered by many, including some people in Congress, which is to offer users their content in chronological order, won’t work. Here’s why.

First, consider Twitter. Chronological feeds are not exactly the norm there, either, because there’s an algorithm at work (which has recently been seen to amplify right wing U.S. news sources). But at least on Twitter, a chronological feed of people we follow wouldn’t be utterly jarring. Indeed, for 1% of Twitter users, who as a test group have always been left out of the algorithms, the feed has always been simply chronological.

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Chronological feeds are tolerable on Twitter simply because, on this platform, we choose the people we want to follow. Algorithmic Twitter differs from chronological Twitter in showing us more popular, and possibly older tweets of the people we follow along with a smattering of tweets from people we don’t follow at all but the algorithm thinks we’ll like. It’s as if we join a cocktail party in the middle and are either told about the recent highlights we missed (algorithmic) or listen in on every single conversation we missed (chronological). The second approach is a decidedly more boring way to join a party, but at least it’s a party we wanted to be invited to.

Now consider Facebook. It’s grown up over the past decade and a half on the concept of reciprocal friendships, which has meant we don’t necessarily want to listen in on the conversations of most of the people in our own networks. The algorithm has developed alongside this network and has learned which conversations we actually want to be a part of — or, more appropriately, with whom we’d prefer to argue. It conveniently prunes away the second cousin’s friend from high school we once met at a party and somehow befriended.

The reality is, we don’t want to hear from most of the “friends” in our networks, and if offered the choice between incredibly boring cat/baby pictures from people we don’t want to know and provocative or even outrageous content from suspicious sources, we will opt for the latter.

It would be different, to be clear, if Facebook had always offered only chronological feeds. Then we would have curated our friends more closely all this time. But it didn’t, we didn’t, and the result is that this particular path-dependent outcome is feasible only with an active algorithm.

By the way, I’m not offering an alternative to “chronological feed” to fix Facebook. That’s not because I’m withholding; I just don’t think there is one. The only reasonable approach is to admit what Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to: Facebook is a destructive force that causes real harm and has no easy fix.

— Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist. She founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company, and is the author of “Weapons of Math Destruction.”