The Feed Is Dying

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The feed is dying. The reverse-chronological social media feed — the way you’ve read Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs (which is to say, the internet) at various points over the last decade, updates organized according to the time they were posted, refreshed at the top of the screen — no longer really makes sense. The unfiltered informational cascade that defined the internet of the 2010s is going the way of the front-page-style web portal: It’s an outdated way of processing online information. The way we consume social media is being transformed and tinkered with as Silicon Valley tries to wring as much engagement, attention, and money out of it as possible. The feed is dying, and we feel shocked by its death — but we shouldn’t.

The feed arose as a simple way to take advantage of the new possibilities of the web. How should information be sorted when it’s being created continually, and not in packaged issues or editions? Early on, putting content in a long list according to the time it was posted made the most sense. It’s the easiest way to organize anything, ever: You just make a pile, and the oldest stuff is at the bottom. It was a perfect paradigm for social networks: It’s transparent, so you don’t need to explain to your users how it works. It fits nicely on a smartphone. Best of all, it encourages people to constantly refresh, which reads as a certain kind of engagement.

Unfortunately, chronological order doesn’t scale well. Once a medium or platform has had its here-comes-everyone moment, the stuff you actually want to see gets buried in an undifferentiated stream — imagine a library organized chronologically, or even the morning edition of a newspaper. People are doing too many things and they are happening all at once, and the once-coherent experience of people using a platform unravels into noise. Who among us hasn’t logged into Twitter only to find friends one-upping each other with meta-meta-meta-ironic jokes about something that happened five minutes ago, and no longer is anyone actually mentioning the thing they’re joking about? Who among us has not followed someone because of a really excellent viral photo or tweet, and then hundreds of posts later it’s like Oh my God, stop talking about your cat, or your car, or your loneliness?

And, as it turns out, the same neutrality and transparency that made time-based sorting so appealing can be a particular liability for social media. It’s an established fact of social media services that, once they reach enough size that the potential audience for a post becomes nebulous, people shy from posting on them, because they can’t predict what reaction they’ll get. This — called “context collapse” — is why we’ve seen group messaging services boom as broader social media ones have flattened; in your Slack or HipChat or GroupMe, you know how your friends or family will react to a link you post. On an open and unfiltered social media feed, the outcome of posting to a public is far too unpredictable.

No one knows how little we respect reverse-chronological feeds better than the companies that produce them for us. Social media services have a vast amount of second-to-second information informing them of what people want to see and when; even the time we linger on a photo, or type something and delete it without posting, they know. You are not immediately aware of how much time you’re consuming flicking past dozens of posts waiting for your crush’s user name to stick at the top of the feed; Instagram is. Twitter knows which tweets from your feed you have clicked on, and maybe linked to in a DM, but never liked or retweeted. They know that your approach to the feed, even for an experience you yourself had a hand in creating, is not neutral. And they’re going to help you out.

And so: Enter the curated feed.

It’s difficult for users to adequately curate their own feeds. Most people just follow their friends. And increasingly, content is not easily searchable text, but rather photos and videos, which can only be organized by titles, hashtags, and geotags. This makes it very difficult to organize. Social media is a multiverse of interest pockets, and you’d never know they were coexisting until you notice a tiny rip in the space-time continuum — a widely shared Facebook post, a viral tweet, a slideshow of 20 Instagrammers You Must Follow. You pull it open, and suddenly you’re in a world of Christian women Instagramming their perfectly-laid-out scrapbooks, parents sharing Minion memes, teens who are extreme fans of Jason Derulo.

This is where the curated feed becomes attractive: Social media services can, theoretically, eliminate posting anxiety, find the people you want to talk to (and the people you want to hear from) and make the experience of posting feel safer and more enjoyable. It’s still organized in a mobile-friendly stack, and still has a vague relationship to time. But it’s made for you. People like familiar experiences and known audiences; they like to have their viewpoints validated and to know there are others like them. This has always been the internet’s best selling point: You can find your people.

Not everyone trusts large tech companies, of course. Whenever and wherever the chronological feed is replaced with its curated descendant, users worry that information they want to see will be hidden, while the content they don’t (like, say, advertisements) will be promoted. It’s an understandable fear. But, well, that ship has sailed: We’ve already given a lot of our online identities and public conversations over to social networks that we can’t hold directly accountable. If we’ve already trusted Instagram with our locations and email addresses and friend networks and “likes” data, it seems like quibbling to worry about the order of the photos.

The Instagram optimized feed will do at least one thing that makes both users and Instagram happy: It stands to be the death of every last third-party sponsored-content photo on the service. Celebrities, demi-lebrities, wholebrities, and very decent photographers alike have made a booming business of posing conspicuously with cars, gadgets, clothing, and diuretic teas. These sponsored posts, though, get less engagement; companies like Instagram, which get no cut of “#spon” revenue, have no incentive to keep them high up in feeds.

The flip side of this, of course, is that the curated feed is an even better place for advertisers to target users. Your interests have been assessed and weighed, which means they are getting a handle on whether to hit you with an ad for a weight loss supplement or one for an airline. And within your newly styled feed, these services can time and place these ads even better than before. “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product,” goes an old MetaFilter post. But we haven’t even remotely begun to see what we, as products, are capable of doing for the companies selling us, and to us. When a lot of people come in and your feed starts to get messy, there is plenty of new engagement-measuring, metrics-optimizing, enjoyment-maximizing tech that can watch what you and everyone does, and turn a pile of chronological mush into entertainment gold for you, and actual gold for the people who own and use those tools.

Services that were never committed to the reverse chronological feed, of course, have no incentive to replace it with something as visually and conceptually similar as the curated feed. Snapchat’s central social feed is still organized according to which of your friends updated most recently, but its Discover publishers, like Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, and Vice, present tight packages of curated content on a daily basis according to their audiences.

It’s impossible for most people to bear witness to every single thing on a social media service, period, let alone enjoy it. It’s enjoyment that makes people good products. And when your follows and likes and scrolling can become Soylent to fuel the efficient hyper-targeted feed, that’s too good an opportunity for anyone (but mostly the social media services) to pass up.

What comes next will likely be less passive. As attractive as a content paradise perfectly suited to each user might be, a better one might be where you don’t have to be alone. Services that not only passively anticipate your needs but ask you questions, and answer yours, would be a good next step, as in the movie Her. Some platforms, like Facebook, are laying the groundwork for these interactions with chatbots that can respond as quickly as … within an hour. Mostly with terrible answers. Being alone, for now, is not so bad.