Our Ingenuity Shapes Facebook

When Facebook splurged this week to buy part of India’s biggest mobile phone company, it set off guessing about the company’s big vision for the country.

But I’ve got a secret for you. Ready? Facebook doesn’t operate with a genius master plan.

Over and over, Facebook sees hints of what people do online and then takes those cues to transform its apps and strategy. It adapted to what we did with online videos. It bent to people improvising ways to sell stuff to Facebook friends, and to Indian merchants (including moms at home) using WhatsApp in ways Facebook hadn’t imagined.

Apple under Steve Jobs prided itself on telling people what they should want. Facebook is the opposite. It runs on our ingenuity.

This is heartening. It’s also terrifying that Facebook can analyze what we do and use its muscle to make our behaviors the world’s standard.

Facebook’s adaptations to our habits started years ago. When we started peppering social media with smartphone-shot videos, Mark Zuckerberg noticed. The Facebook co-founder declared that video was the future of Facebook and the internet. He didn’t know exactly what that meant.

It was up to us to figure out whether videos were better short or long, and more interesting if they featured our cooking techniques or political news. Facebook’s feedback loop — a computer system that pushed videos to the top of Facebook pages — encouraged people and businesses to shoot even more.

Then a few years ago, the company noticed that people were listing old sofas and other stuff for sale on Facebook, using messaging apps to haggle over price and arranging to meet in person to hand off and pay.

Facebook stepped in to make the transaction possible without leaving its virtual walls. The company created Marketplace, a combination of Craigslist with the audience size of Facebook.

In India and elsewhere, Facebook watched as people started to use its WhatsApp messaging app for commerce. A vegetable stall takes orders by text on WhatsApp and arranges a time for customers to pick them up. Millions of women started businesses at home using WhatsApp to recommend and sell products to people in their social circles.

Facebook didn’t necessarily intend for WhatsApp to be used this way, but the company went along with it and made it easier for businesses to use WhatsApp to list and sell goods. Its linkup with the Jio phone company is also a way to listen to people and small businesses in India and influence the future of WhatsApp there and beyond.

Facebook sometimes flops when it sticks its finger in the air to gauge our habits. Those failures can be devastating to coffee shops and news outlets that go along for the ride.

Many companies ask and watch how we use their products. Facebook does it better than most. It’s good — and also weird — that we mortals are showing one of the internet era’s mightiest companies how it should evolve. This feels like peeking behind the curtain at the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, and seeing Zuckerberg pulling levers on a clunky machine.

I’ve had a couple of dispatches this week about how bad information spreads online, and what we can do about it. One question that’s nagged at me is whether nuanced and informative ideas — about this pandemic and everything else — can ever be as appealing online as the confident and outrageous ones.

Conspiracies and hoaxes are compelling because they boil down complexities and fixate on purported scapegoats. It doesn’t help that at popular internet hangouts like Facebook and YouTube, software makes the most outlandish ideas circulate more easily than the complex ones.

I asked my colleague Kevin Roose — jokingly — whether he and I should be doing YouTube videos in the style of Alex Jones, who weaves engaging, elaborate conspiracy theories on his radio show and website. Jones has largely been kicked off popular mainstream online hubs like YouTube for promoting dangerous misinformation like calling the Sandy Hook school shooting a hoax.

Kevin said, yes, we should all be more like Alex Jones. He wasn’t joking.

“For a long time, people at Serious News Organizations tended to write off YouTube as the place for cooking and cat videos, rather than figuring out that it was the place an entire generation was getting its information,” he told me.

There are, of course, journalists at outlets like BuzzFeed, NowThis News and The Washington Post (even The New York Times!) who have figured out how to be engaging and informative in the internet spots where people are spending more of their time. But to Kevin’s point, probably not enough.

I’m pretty sure I’m never going to become a YouTube personality. But I am intrigued by the idea of people using the dark arts of conspiracy theorists to promote ideas that are actually helpful.

  • Soothing, self-sufficient cooking for your weekend: Tejal Rao, a restaurant critic at The Times, is devoted to a Chinese YouTube star who cultivates and cooks her own food in a beautiful countryside. Li Ziqi’s “D.I.Y. pastoral fantasies have become a reliable source of escape and comfort,” Tejal writes.

  • “We knew we shouldn’t,” said one former employee: Amazon has said it does not, as some businesses have suspected, use its detailed, private sales information to make competing products. But The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon did repeatedly consult sales information about items on its online mall to create copycats.

LeBron James and his family were great at dancing to Drake’s “Toosie Slide” song. But these kids, who are part of a children’s charity in Uganda, leave LeBron in the dust with their version of the Drake dance. (Thanks to my colleague Natasha Singer for sharing this gem.)

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