Facebook has changed its algorithm, again. Cue critics of change, critics of Facebook, critics of anything-anti-business; especially those businesses which (quite remarkably) are the ones being demoted with this latest shift. Or so it would appear.
“People told us they wanted to see more stories from friends and Pages they care about, and less promotional content”, their update says. In theory this should be a good thing. In practice it comes only shortly after the rollout of “Topics”, the auto-inserted tagging system. Databasing ‘thought’, shared.
For those like me (who do not want their posts to be neatly commodified into saleable, trendable packages for the benefit of Facebook’s commercial partners) you can remove those tags before hitting ‘publish’. However if you happen to edit your posts (which I frequently do, to correct typos or add extra links or updates) and hit ‘publish’ for the second time, those tags mysteriously, frustratingly, re-appear. There’s no ‘opt out of auto-tagging everything’ option, so I find myself meticulously re-checking every post, even scanning whole pages of posts to check that errant Topics haven’t been added ‘for my convenience’, and removing them when they invariably have.
Last night I noticed something that really concerned me. I’d shared a post, the voice of someone I know from Australia who was at the protests in Dallas. Manal Younus is a powerful spoken word performer and writer. Her post shared her perspective of a day full of so much beauty and love, conflicted with grief and horror. It’s a beautiful read for its humanness, its simplicity, its reveal of abundant togetherness and solidarity in the face of a world driven by hate and fear. But it had the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, so of course Facebook auto-tagged it “Politics”. (Manal also happens to be Muslim; given what came next I’m grateful Facebook does not, yet, auto-tag by religion).
I did what I always do, de-tagged the Topic and hit ‘publish’. Then I realised I’d tagged Manal’s personal profile not her Page and, both respecting her privacy and wanting to help connect those who want more access to her work, I edited it to change the link and hit ‘publish’ once more. The ‘Politics’ tag had re-appeared, so, sighing, I hit ‘edit’ again. I was using my mobile (where I hadn’t noticed this problem before) where this time it seemed I didn’t have access to ‘remove topics’ . Worse, when looking for the ‘remove topics’ link, I saw something I’d never noticed before: an invitation to “Hide posts about Politics from Reallybigroadtrip” (my page).
I talk about Politics a lot (“no kidding”, says everyone who’s ever met me). I happen to think everyone should talk about Politics; indeed they do, they just don’t think they do. I talk to a lot of people who say they don’t care about Politics, who say they have no opinion. Yet lean toward the slightest questioning and watch as opinions and values roll out. Politics isn’t cool. We shouldn’t rock the boat. We have it easy, we shouldn’t complain. It’s not ‘our place’ to speak out.
Far too many people have been given the impression that Politics isn’t their domain. It is. It’s everyone’s domain. The thought of excluding all mention of it frankly appals me.
We already know Facebook is an echo chamber. It (and other closed-web platforms) reinforce our bubbles, show us what we should be reading according to where we are, who we know and what we’ve previously liked. This streamlining might make us feel more comfortable but it does nothing to open our eyes to the world outside. Being able to additionally remove all mention of something that Facebook’s algorithm deems “Politics” can only harm us, sanitise us further from seeing through the eyes of ‘otherness’ and the empathy that brings.
My Facebook feeds feature Governmental Politics and creative social change embedded within contexts of art, technology, buslife, intentional communities, natural environments. They include reminders of extreme beauty and harsh truths — often juxtaposed in the same status update. I try not to preach and I’m trying to get better at ‘show don’t tell’, but I often fail — the curse of both privilege and generations of preachers in my ancestry (I’m a begrudging Vicar’s daughter). So if someone doesn’t want to be preached at, even occasionally, even unintentionally, then they’re probably best off not following my social feeds. But when they do, and when there’s art and beauty mentioned alongside the politics of fear and hatred, why should they be denied access to both simply for Facebook asserting the dominance of one?
So much of society’s problem is precisely due to this dominant assertion; otherness is best kept out of sight, out of mind. When reading that invitation to exclude, “Hide posts about Politics from Reallybigroadtrip”, part of me wanted to shout “Seriously? You want to read Reallybigroadtrip but only when there’s no mention of Politics? Then unfollow me, because you won’t see much else” but that would be doing exactly what their invitation intends to — distancing the communication, compounding the problem. I spend much of my time in random conversations with strangers specifically because I want to hear from people with views that are not my own. Of course this comes with difficulties; I don’t enjoy hearing bigotry, but I do want to understand why someone can be bigoted, and the only way that’s possible is by actively conversing with bigots.
I applaud Facebook for changing their algorithm away from preferencing business, but I continue to dislike their commodification of our thoughts and ideas into re-sellable packages. I reject that my thoughts, all thought, are deemed a meagre product in their trends analysis. And I deeply mistrust their intentions when inviting exclusion to entire topics, never mind when those topics are determined by algorithm.
“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” is the regular mantra delivered in response to the straight/white/male norm. Those who believe they are becoming oppressed have had it all their own way for so long they can no longer even see it for what it is. The monopoly of mainstream media, the homogeneity of TV and Film, and the proliferation of echo chambers do nothing to challenge this norm. It has to be your decision to look beyond. You choose to pull back the curtain, or you comply and accept the status quo.
I believe the only way we are going to get past increasing unrest is by allowing the outside in, by embracing otherness for all its wonder instead of building yet more walls to keep it out. I long for the day when more people see more diversity, more marginalised voices, more otherness. In order for society to heal and move toward a more open and balanced collective harmony, we need to start seeing, start hearing. Doing so loses nothing and gains everything.
So, no, Facebook; I do not want to hide Politics. I do not want Facebook to even offer the hiding of Politics. And I would warmly welcome anyone who has hidden Politics from Reallybigroadtrip, or any other page, to come and talk to me about it. I promise I will listen.