But you know what the Internet really needs less of?
Sober coverage of serious issues. (Like, the measles outbreak: such tired, depressing news.)
That is at least the basic takeaway from “What’s Working,” a new and ironically dispiriting editorial project from the Internet seers at the Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington, in all her mindful imperialness, has rightly observed that both Facebook’s news algorithm and human nature prefer to share stories that make you feel good. So the HuffPost of the future will include a lot more “relentless telling” of “people and communities doing amazing things.”
Things like … dudes saving money to take their wives on vacation. Pit bulls wearing ill-fitting pajamas. Grandmothers dancing at some party. I have seen the future of “the nice Internet,” as the New York Times named it in July 2014, and it is a sticky-sweet Candy Land of willful ignorance and self-flattering “positivity.”
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate a hero-dog or a dancing grandma as much as the next office drone. But the issue here is that, when Facebook shares become your primary measure of editorial quality, you begin pandering to the curious and not entirely pro-social whims of Facebook’s News Feed. (The “lowest common denominator,” as Mashable’s editor in chief once told me.)
See, the News Feed algorithm has historically tried to privilege content that it thinks you will like — a sensible approach, when there’s an overwhelming amount of content and you’re a massive social network trying to keep eyeballs on the site. To do that, News Feed surfaces stories that are getting lots of likes and shares from people you engage with often.
This is essentially the cycle off which Huffington Post and the whole of the “nice Internet” profit. People share what makes them feel good → highly-shared stories become more visible in News Feed → more visible posts get more shares … on and on, a relentless whirlwind of rescued homeless people and fundraisers and puppies. The monthly reports of Newswhip, a social media analytics service, back that up consistently: Its most popular articles on Facebook for December included “Holiday newborns go home in Christmas stockings.”
This is insidious, and not just because this genre of Upworthy sharebait is so. Damn. Annoying. You’ll recall the hullabaloo that followed News Feed’s failure to surface news of the Ferguson protests in mid-August — in a nutshell, the current system inevitably penalizes any subject that doesn’t make the poster “feel good.” That includes any story that fails to vindicate your personal view of the world; any story that challenges your assumptions or politics; any story that confronts you with the uncomfortable fact that, yes, while it’s very cute this woman is going on vacation, the 20 percent of U.S. children living in abject poverty will probably never do the same.
The function and practice of journalism have both, of course, changed. But occasionally challenging you to think is still hypothetically the name of the game.
Huffington seemed to anticipate this criticism: “We will continue to cover the stories of what’s not working,” her memo promised, like “political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc.”
But if a story publishes to the Internet and no one shares it, did it ever exist? Especially when so very many “positive” stories are bubbling up to replace it?