Filterworld: The invention of the feed


Key takeaways


  • The social-media feeds became more algorithmic. I’m less wary about that phrase, using algorithmic as an adjective. It means that algorithmic recommendations occupied more space on the feed. The items were not in strictly chronological order, and chronology itself was less of a factor in terms of what got placed toward the top of the feed.
  • After this shift, Facebook wasn’t necessarily showing you what happened in the past hour; it showed what its recommendation system determined would be of most interest to you.
  • In an algorithmic feed, more people see content that is already popular, as determined by the actions of other users. There’s a clear snowball effect:
  • We don’t choose what kinds of content the feed accelerates — we can’t opt out of a specific post getting algorithmic promotion. In my experience, it’s only my worst, most banal tweets that go viral and get reposted by Instagram aggregation accounts. Sure, lots of people see them, but it’s not really the kind of writing I would like to be known for.
  • Linear feeds were messy and inefficient. You just saw whatever happened to be there when you logged on. If you were bored or business-minded, you could scroll through the entire feed until you got back to the stuff that you had seen last time.
  • Some apps had labels for this stopping point, alerting you that you’ve seen every tweet or every Instagram story. That no longer happens; there is now so much atomized content online that it has to be sorted or else it would be incomprehensible at its current scale and pace.
  • When everything has been sorted for you in advance by a machine, and there is an endless supply of future options in the feed, the consumer experience becomes passive as well as confusing.
  • We are not able to develop coherent, deepening relationships with the ideas or narratives that we follow. Instead, the algorithmic feed delivers increasingly meaningless stimuli.