Maybe it’s the fault of the “Like” button. It’s the “well, I don’t LIKE that your grandmother died, but there’s no I SUPPORT YOU button” problem.

Maybe it’s because Facebook is the turf you share with friends and family and people you Friended by mistake thinking they were your cousins, and if you post anything too sensitive you know that Racist Uncle Jeff is going to weigh in.

Or maybe it’s the perennial problem of the tailored experience: to mangle Donald Rumsfeld’s coinage, there are the things you know you want to see, the things you know you don’t want to see, the things you don’t know about and don’t want to see — but what about the things you don’t know you want to see?

This is especially a problem when it comes to news.

In recent days, the struggles of Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, have been all over Twitter and much of the news. On Facebook?

Well, it depends.


And the explanations vary.

How can I “like” what happened to your grandma? Where’s the “Dave respectfully wishes to share his awareness of this news” button?

The trouble with the Internet is the fact that it lays your reading habits bare. Perhaps barer than you would like. If there were a hack that, every time I clicked a story about the Further Travails of Justin Bieber, would reroute the click to a Worthy Story About Actual Problems, foreign bureaus would not have suffered the cuts they have. But there isn’t. And the window moves accordingly.

Except you can’t tell that it’s moving. When you look out a window or into a newspaper, you feel confident that you will see everything that is there. This is not the case with the Internet. It’s a window onto the world — but it does not necessarily reveal all there is to see. Facebook and Twitter both have their blind spots. If you depend on one or the other, you’ll miss things, be it local news or national outrages.

You see only a fraction of what there is — in a day of frantic Facebooking, Trey Graham only saw 29 percent of his friends’ posts — and what that fraction is, is tailored in accordance to some fairly opaque algorithms. Facebook’s Greg Marra, a product manager of News Feed told him:

“News Feed is made by you. … It tries to show the most interesting things possible for you, it’s a very personalized system. … We try to let users take control.”

Really?

Marra said there are countless signals that tell Facebook what to pump into a person’s News Feed, including relationships with other users, the topic of content in a given link, how long a user spends reading a story he or she found though Facebook, if and how many times X user visits Y user’s profile, friends’ activity on a certain post, all of our previous activity and more.

But how much control do we have over an algorithm we can’t see?

There’s always a blind spot. The window moves, depending on where you look.

Over at Medium.com last week, Zeynep Tufekci noticed this phenomenon, warning “Algorithms have consequences.”

This isn’t about Facebook per se – maybe it will do a good job, maybe not – but the fact that algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.

Twitter was also affected by algorithmic filtering. “Ferguson” did not trend in the US on Twitter but it did trend locally. [I’ve since learned from @gilgul that that it *briefly* trended but mostly trended at localities.] So, there were fewer chances for people not already following the news to see it on their “trending” bar. Why? Almost certainly because there was already national, simmering discussion for many days and Twitter’s trending algorithm (said to be based on a method called “term frequency inverse document frequency”) rewards spikes… So, as people in localities who had not been talking a lot about Ferguson started to mention it, it trended there though the national build-up in the last five days penalized Ferguson.

Algorithms have consequences.

It’s perhaps ironic that Facebook, at the same time that Ferguson has been conspicuous by its absence from many News Feeds, has been instead rewarding another kind of awareness: the ice bucket challenge for ALS. I have nothing against awareness (well, except the following) and everything against ALS, but there’s more than one kind of awareness to raise and keep in mind.

Remember, this is one window that does not show everything.

As long as we’re raising awareness, stay aware of what you’re looking at. This blind spot is a powerful argument for a balanced media diet — print news outlets, Twitter, Facebook, TV — and for vigilance. What you see in your window is not all there is to see.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called for the National Guard to intervene in his city on Monday morning after protests grew violent yet again on Sunday night, despite a curfew the governor imposed on Saturday. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.