As a parent, I’m a member of more than a few Facebook Groups related to my children’s education. And damn, they can be irritating. You quickly learn that parents frequently disagree wildly on teaching styles, curriculum choices, and even specific assignments. But at least the discussion is directly related the school or the class.
That wasn’t the case for a recent post in the group, where a fellow parent decided to share an article about raising successful girls in today’s political climate. The parent provided virtually no context other than wanting to share it in response to the recent high-profile sexual harassment allegations against famous men.
The article was valid — I agreed with much of it — but I found the act of sharing it to the private group intrusive. The point of this group (which class parents are all but required to join) is for parents to connect and discuss their children’s class, not for general news or political discussion.
Put more bluntly: I don’t care what you’re reading, and even if I did, this isn’t the place to share it.
I couldn’t help but think of that incident when I read Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s thinking behind his company’s blanket redesign of Snapchat. With the revamp, the app is more clearly separating your interactions with friends from the things you read: Your snap conversations and your friends’ Stories will be on the left, and publisher content (like Mashable‘s Discover channel) and public, curated Stories are over on the right.
But it was the philosophy behind the big change that rang very true to me. Spiegel said:
The combination of social and media has yielded incredible business results, but has ultimately undermined our relationships with our friends and our relationships with the media. We believe that the best path forward is disentangling the two by providing a personalized content feed based on what you want to watch, not what your friends post.
Think about all the things you read and are interested in, and then think about how many of those you’re comfortable sharing with your Facebook or Twitter networks. Generally I think that the larger and more public-facing your network becomes, the subset of content you want to share becomes smaller and smaller, to the point where you’re either sharing anodyne stuff like food porn or articles you know your followers already agree with.
While that may be fine for those who want to live in their filter bubbles, sharing habits affect everyone on the network. When consuming media in a place like Facebook (and yes, there are many other social networks, but it’s fair to pick on Facebook since it’s by far the largest influencer), what you see is largely driven by what your friends are sharing.
Which brings me back to my original point: I don’t care what you’re reading. Yet Facebook is constantly shoving it in my face, and thanks in large part to the events of the past year, we’re only just now starting to see that mixing media and social relationships together isn’t necessarily natural or even beneficial (although it’s certainly been lucrative for publishers, including Mashable).
Certainly, AI and algorithms have a role to play here, and might even help fix the problem by reducing friend activity as a driver, but given the maturity of Facebook itself and its business model, it’s hard to see things fundamentally changing. AI and algorithms are terrific at surfacing content you’ll click, share, and generally “engage” with, but is it really the stuff you want to see? That you would have sought out absent a news feed?
That’s why Snapchat’s approach of essentially splitting the “feed” in two is the right way to do content on a social network. It still benefits from algorithms, but they’re put to work finding content that you actually want to see and have expressed interest in — something we probably aren’t doing as much under the scrutiny of our Facebook or Twitter friends. Snapchat also has a curated set of media and real editors, which help insulate it from the worst evils of socially driven content, like false stories going viral.
Even though Snapchat’s new approach is philosophically sound, there are potential pitfalls. Snapchat users will still be able to share individual stories from Discover with their friends on the network, so it’s not like sharing content will be completely absent. Moreover, having two distinct functions in the app strongly suggests that Snapchat should split into two different apps. Of course, then the media section wouldn’t benefit from the app’s highly engaged user base. Discover would be the new Swarm.
And none of this is to say it’s impossible mix media and social correctly. Twitter, as more public-facing medium, is more suited to combining news with real-time commentary from people whose views you care about. And by making “news from your friends” the focus, apps like Nuzzel are a good guide to what your social circle is talking about without the risk of getting pulled into the quicksand of a comments section.
But Spiegel and Co. are onto something here, and it may even help change course away from some of the worst developments that networks have wrought upon us: filter bubbles, fake news, and trolls. Initially, social media companies mixed social chocolate with media peanut butter, and the result was definitely delicious at times. But we were so taken by the recipe that we forgot both are often better on their own.