December 2, 2021

I Used Facebook Without the Algorithm, and You Can Too

Facebook is broken, says whistleblower Frances Haugen, who worked on the company’s civic integrity team. In testimony before Congress and in the media, Haugen has argued that the social giant’s algorithms contribute to maladies that range from teen mental health issues to ethnic violence in Ethiopia. There’s no one solution that will fix all that’s wrong with Facebook—no, not even a new name—but one of Haugen’s suggestions stood out.

“I’m a strong proponent of chronological ranking, ordering by time with a little bit of spam demotion,” she told the Senate earlier this month. “We should have software that is human-scaled, where humans have conversations together, not computers facilitating who we get to hear from.”

Imagine that! Humans … having conversations … together. Haugen essentially recommends a Facebook News Feed where items appear as people post them, rather than in an order divined by the company’s algorithmic wizardry. In this world, likes and comments wouldn’t dictate what you see. It’s all a matter of timing—which would also prevent the algorithm from tossing logs onto the platform’s most inflammatory posts.

It’s not that radical a notion. Instagram only handed the algorithm the reins to your feed in 2016. Twitter took away chronology altogether that same year, only to reintroduce it as an option in 2018. And you can also ditch the algorithm in the Facebook News Feed right now, today. I know, because I’ve been doing it for the last two weeks.

In fairness, it’s not like Facebook hides the option. On desktop, you just click Most Recent in the lefthand pane. On mobile, you’ll find Most Recent under the hamburger menu in the upper-right corner. As Facebook itself warns, though, the experience is fleeting. “You can sort your News Feed to see recent posts,” a company help page says, “but News Feed will eventually return to its default setting.” (Or you can just use this link instead of facebook dot com, and load a ranking-free experience every time.)

To get a possibly obvious caveat out of the way: I am by no means a Facebook power user. I’ve posted three or four times a year since 2019, all of which were either WIRED stories or attempts to drum up business for my daughter’s Girl Scout cookie side hustle. My account is private, and while I’m somehow a member of 14 groups, more than half of those haven’t posted anything in the past year, I sporadically check in on three, and had forgotten the rest existed. Still, any honest accounting would put me on Facebook a few times a week. Call it force of habit, call it Marketplace voyeurism. Regardless, I am familiar with how the News Feed typically functions—and was struck by just how different an experience a healthy dose of chronology imparted.

I also don’t want to overstate things. The ills that Haugen proposes chronology may fix are largely not present in my social media bubble to begin with, at last that I’ve seen. Facebook also uses a multitude of algorithms; here it’s referring only to the platform’s News Feed ranking. And I hesitate to say whether the experience is necessarily better, at least for me, than what Facebook currently has on offer. Far more interesting, anyway, is what it says about Facebook itself.

I have 975 Facebook friends, accumulated over the past 13 years or so. I “like” 15 pages, a list that primarily comprises news outlets, plus a few friends who converted their profiles into Pages, and Cheez-Its, for some reason. (The reason is that Cheez-Its are delicious.)

You might imagine that in a healthy social network, even in chronological mode, the ratio of posts from friends to brands would roughly reflect the proportion in which you follow them. You don’t even have to imagine, actually; chronological Twitter functions basically like this, with ebbs and flows throughout the day that map the real human activity of the people you follow.

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