Facebook is using an old drug dealer tactic to keep its users hooked

And boy, is it a helluva drug.
And boy, is it a helluva drug.
Image: Reuters/Bor Slana
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Facebook said it’s making some far-reaching changes to what you see in your newsfeed. Soon, when you see a post, it’s more likely to be because a friend shared the link, rather than because you follow a media company or business that published it.*

Reporter Michael Coren summed up the decision that founder Mark Zuckerberg outlined in a Facebook post:

“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us,” Zuckerberg wrote. “But recently we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content—posts from businesses, brands and media—is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

That marks a tectonic shift for Facebook’s algorithm, which has been built to prioritize engagement (and monopolize users’ attention) above almost all other considerations. That has helped propel the company’s revenue to record highs, hitting about $34 billion last year, but the strategy has drawn fierce criticism for favoring inflammatory and misleading content. That criticism grew even fiercer after a 2016 election in which Facebook proved crucial for Donald Trump’s successful campaign to win the White House.

Facebook, like so much else in our world these days, is in a kind of crisis. In November, tech gadabout—and its one-time president—Sean Parker said the social network “exploits human psychology.” Indeed, that feeling of scrolling through the News Feed, dead-eyed but unable to stop, is something all of us have experienced.

The company expects usage and possibly revenue to dip, and Wall Street’s similarly merciless algorithms sent its stock price down 5%. As the Atlantic wrote, it looked like Facebook finally blinked. After years of relentless optimization—of purifying the product in order to better digitally drug users into staying on the site—it’s finally come around to the idea that while it can disrupt countless industries and products, there’s no business victory in disrupting the functioning of the human mind.

Or has it?

Yes, Zuckerberg may have realized his platform is not all-encompassing enough to turn humans into Matrix-like pod people (perhaps that’s a job for Facebook’s Oculus VR division). But this move was surely carefully designed, with product managers realizing that users who abandon social media are unlikely to return, while a cut-down dose of its drug might keep feed junkies hanging around longer, searching for that scrolling high. Ask any dealer—cutting the product is a better scenario than having users overdose and turn up dead. In Facebook’s case, “dead,” mercifully, would mean a user who quits the site cold turkey, and sets themselves free of social media. And that’s clearly not a world Zuckerberg wants to live in.

*Note: The first paragraph of this post has been edited to more accurately explain the changes Facebook announced it will make make to News Feed.

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