The Problem With Facebook’s Trending Topics

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Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Last week, Facebook fired the humans who were curating and writing the small list of “trending topics” that appears in the upper right of the Facebook homepage. That list, meant to show users what other people on the network are “talking about,” is now (according to Facebook) entirely assembled by software, supervised by humans who will correct whatever mistakes it makes. How’s that going so far? Let’s ask Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, whose name was trending over the weekend because she was “kicked out” of Fox News “for supporting Hillary,” according to a blog post on a website called “EndingTheFed.com,” which Facebook’s new “trending” process saw fit to highlight. I hate to cast aspersions on EndingTheFed.com, but the report was not true, and was quietly removed.

The Trending widget has always been a weird and little-loved feature, a living monument to Facebook’s inability (or refusal) to reconcile its status as a publisher with an enormous amount of power in shaping people’s perceptions of the world with its understanding of itself as a completely neutral platform whose priorities are set and decisions made by complex algorithms processing terabytes of data. On the one hand, Facebook was simply serving up topics that many people were recently “talking about” on the network — as a neutral platform might. On the other, it was employing a staff of nearly 20 people actively selecting among those topics, determining which reached a threshold of credibility, and writing summaries — as a newspaper might.

Nowhere was this tension more apparent than in the small summaries that accompanied each item on the list, conspicuously formal and rigorously “neutral” straitjackets for the weird bits of gossip, outrage, humor, and video-game or comic-book movie announcements that actually trended. Reading the summaries — “Jake Gyllenhaal and Rooney Mara: Actors Reportedly Seen Taking a Walk Together in New York City”; “Garlic Bread Memes: Facebook Page Posts Image Criticized as Transphobic”; “Justin Timberlake: Singer Referenced Facebook Meme” — was like entering some parallel universe in which the condescendingly colloquial headline style that’s ubiquitous in our universe had never been adopted. It seemed as though Facebook was trying to reverse-engineer the studied objectivity it imagined real journalism entailed; in that sense, at least, Trending was an utterly engrossing project, a fascinating performance of “neutrality” by one of the world’s most powerful businesses and a small glimpse into Facebook’s own understanding of how media “works.”

Still: That just made it a curiosity, not a success. Those summaries are gone now, along with their authors, replaced by raw numbers — “Avicii: 76K people talking about this”; “Ice Road Truckers: 21K people talking about this.” The new Trending topics are, at least, appealingly transparent. Before, Trending could take on unearned weight simply by appearing prominently in the front-page box — “everyone’s talking about McChicken!” Now it’s clear that only 9,000 people, smaller than a rounding error to Facebook’s billion-strong user base, are “talking about” “McChicken” on Facebook. (For the record, they are “talking about” a viral video of a guy, uh, penetrating a McDonald’s McChicken sandwich.)

But the new widget eliminates both the lobotomized affect that gave Trending its stunted charm, and also whatever small sense of context could be gathered from the summaries. These new Trending topics are robotic to the extreme, baffling and alien and utterly uninterested in decipherability. Why are 11,000 people “talking about” Mila Kunis? Your guess is as good as mine: Clicking through the link reveals a smattering of different, unrelated posts, including a video of the credits to That ‘70s Show. “1M people [are] talking about” Apple Inc.: I mean, sure. Why wouldn’t they be? So?

Facebook fired its editors, we can assume, because it wanted to eliminate the human decision-making that will necessarily lead to claims of bias and suppression. But in removing the thin veneer of context provided by its sentence summaries Facebook leaves bare the real problem with Trending: On its own, it’s useless. That a particular phrase is trending on Facebook is not an inherently interesting fact. The how or the why might be interesting — but explaining would be a publisher’s job, not a platform’s. That “7.1K people [are] talking about” Mary Shelley, or that “1K people [are] talking about” Google Contacts is not information that serves me even as a diversion.

Worse, the Trending widget compromises itself, creating a feedback loop as more people “talk about” the things they see people are “talking about.” Ultimately Trending becomes an exercise in reflexive information distribution, based on the assumption that data is useful in and of itself — that because Facebook can tell you that a certain number of people are talking about something, it should. But that’s not just useless, it’s worse than useless. Data needs interpretation. By firing its editors, by refusing to empower them to explain and interpret, Facebook doomed its project to pointlessness: a lobotomized newswire with no context, no new information, and no real reason to exist.