Imagine if every newspaper came with a mandatory T-shirt. Suddenly, that tabloid you paged through out of curiosity becomes part of your identity. You have to explain to friends that despite being a walking billboard, you don’t actually agree with The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorials, or think The New York Times is too liberal but still covers the facts. Increasingly, you stick to outlets you unambiguously approve of, reinforcing things you already believe.
This is how Facebook imagines the future of news, and it’s absurd.
Since president-elect Donald Trump’s campaign exposed deep rifts in the American electorate, people have criticized various aspects of the Facebook “filter bubble,” in which an incredibly popular platform surrounds users with content confirming their worldview. Some of the problems with how Facebook sorts and shows news seem like genuine mistakes, and others seem at least malleable. But the issue isn’t just algorithms. It’s a collision between the social interactions that Facebook is designed to simulate, and the information-gathering that it’s now used for. Facebook is a news platform, but its most ubiquitous form of interaction is designed to discourage exploration: the Like.
Liking things is the universal currency of Facebook. The company has flirted with “following” and “subscribing” to celebrities, and you can react to individual posts with sadness or surprise. But in order to regularly see a page’s posts in your feed — the surest way to expose yourself to a range of ideas — you almost invariably have to start with a public stamp of approval.
In one sense, this is just a quick click. But before Facebook was a news juggernaut, Liking pages was a way to flesh out your online identity, a signifier every bit as visible as a T-shirt or pin. Facebook shows which of your friends Like a page when you visit it, and at one point, clicking the Like button on a page could literally make you an advertising spokesperson for its product.
If you’re trying to foster open-minded disagreement, this feels intuitively wrong. “If you want to see it, you have to like it” is the sort of thinking that shuts down critical analysis as censorship, and “If you’re seeing it, you clearly like it” is the sort that forbids complicated relationships with problematic art.
The implicit accusation in pieces about the filter bubble is that we’re all too parochial, and we should savor seeing messages we hate on Facebook. But this undermines the interpersonal relationships that Facebook was originally created for. Filters and bubbles are not categorically bad: the atmosphere is a bubble, and it’s the reason we don’t choke. There’s value in spaces where uncomfortable debate isn’t the primary mode of interaction, where you can share personal pictures and stories with people you fully trust.
Until we live in a post-scarcity, post-bigotry utopia, politics isn’t an abstract academic debate, and choosing to actively communicate opinions in a specific way isn’t the same as “holding a belief.” Changing hearts and minds is a worthy pursuit, but you are a human being with a finite lifespan and limited emotional energy, and you should not feel guilty for wanting to interact with people whose company betters you. It is not necessarily your responsibility to maintain a relationship with someone who publicly ignores your needs or belittles your (or your friends’) humanity, just because it’s wrapped in a philosophical treatise or a flag. The fact that Facebook is written instead of spoken, and remote instead of face-to-face, doesn’t change that.
The problem is that the positive affirmation of casual friendship is Facebook’s default for everything. So the critique “You should read things you disagree with” easily becomes, say, “You should be ashamed for not hanging out with white supremacists,” and mutatis mutandis. And when all your activity is incorporated into Facebook’s ur-soul, there’s no difference between consuming something and making it part of your self-presentation. It’s not weak or close-minded to care about how other people see you, it’s basic emotional intelligence.
The answer that I’m gritting my teeth not to give is for God’s sake, stop using Facebook as a primary news source. Share cat pics, personal rants, cool videos, whatever. Urge Facebook to crack down on outright falsehoods, make fact-checking easier, and serve links in a transparent way. But keep an RSS reader or Twitter list or a presence on literally any platform that’s not built on a friendship metaphor. Don’t expect the digital equivalent of a knitting club or office water cooler to be your information clearinghouse. Encourage everyone you encounter to follow suit.
In real life, interpersonal bubbles often pop because people get to know each other apolitically in coffee shops and hobby meetups and fantasy sports leagues, or any other context where they’re united by the things they like, not just virtuously listening to ideas they hate. (If you want to befriend someone whose politics you despise on Facebook, post a cat picture.) And people change their minds when they can consider ideas without making a snap decision — the opposite of the news page Like. The less extricable our news is from our selves, the harder it is to weigh it critically.
But we work with the world we’ve got, so here’s my dream: Facebook should take another stab at a dedicated news app. Yank up Trending Topics’ roots the way Facebook did with Messenger, and transplant it in a new context where media outlets aren’t your friends and friends aren’t your media. Expand people’s range of engagement options, and hire editors who will make its aggregation process more than a bitter joke. If you want to go Like The Verge on Facebook, that’s awesome. I wish you could get our feed by expressing your ambivalent apathy.