Make a Better Facebook, for You and the Nation

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Lately, Facebook has been, well, depressing. I find myself avoiding it more, ignoring its little pings to get my attention. (I really, really don’t care how many event invites or notifications I’ve missed, Facebook.)

Some of this can be blamed on the recent election. But I also think there are some deeper reasons as well, not strictly related to the election. Over the last decade — and in the last few years in particular — Facebook has taken on an increasingly important role in our public and private lives. For many people, it’s the first place to make important family and job announcements, or to send out invitations; at the same time, it’s a central location for sharing and discussing news and politics. And if you’re spending that much time and attention on a single company, it’s important to take control of it as best you can.

Why You Might Want to Change Your News Feed

Facebook’s News Feed algorithm changed in midsummer, rejiggering the dials to lower the number of posts from news organizations showing up in my News Feed and raise the number of posts from my friends. In some ways this is great; I see more stuff from actual people, fewer posts from the The Wire fan page I “liked” in 2007. But this also means that many of the news stories I see on Facebook aren’t from any of the publications I’ve chosen to follow, but instead from the publications my friends chose to share — which in practice mainly means emotionally charged and highly partisan information. And after an election where 95 percent of my Facebook feed was stunned to discover that there are people who would actually vote for Donald Trump, life in that kind of filter bubble no longer seems so comfortable. (This Chrome extension can easily show you just how much of a bubble your Facebook feed really is.)

It’s also troubling to think that I’m actively supporting a company that has quickly eaten the media and seems unwilling to take on the responsibilities that entails. It’s not just the fake news that bubbles up all over the site — it’s that Facebook, which is very firm about not being a media company but just a neutral platform, is where 44 percent of Americans say they get news. Filter bubbles (under a different name) were recognized as a problem long before Mark Zuckerberg cobbled together code that allowed Ivy League kids to share pics of binge drinking, but Facebook has taken those bubbles and turned them into walls. Since moving over to an algorithmically controlled News Feed, Facebook has always rewarded stories that engage on an emotional level (and caused the rise, and sometimes fall, of several media organizations). But in 2016, most stories that I come across now read like New York Post front pages without the puns: Everything is awful or wonderful, sickening or heartwarming, diseased or destined to save us all — and none of it is ever challenging to my basic worldview.

It’s not just unhealthy for me, personally, to see that constantly. It’s damaging for the 170 million Americans on Facebook, all of whom live in a country where the citizens are deeply divided and actively digging deeper into their ideological foxholes. It’s true that this phenomenon isn’t something that Facebook created, but it’s also true that Facebook is only making the problem worse.

But it’s still the place where I see baby pictures and engagement announcements and job changes and all the other assorted small but meaningful glimpses of other people’s lives. It’s also been a place where I’ve seen and participated in some successful organizing, whether that’s making calls to my representatives or being moved to donate to some key causes. It’s not something I’m ready to give up on quite yet (though I don’t blame anyone who does).

So, then, how to make it better? Here’s what I hit on.

See Your Actual News Feed

In 2006, Facebook just showed you the most recent things people and pages in your network had done, chronologically. By 2011, it had started to sort posts into “Top News,” algorithmically picking what Facebook thought you’d be most interested in. Facebook’s sorting formulas are opaque, and the company believes that it’s giving you what you most want to see (judged by some combination of clicks, shares, likes, comments, and even how much time you spend lingering on a given post). But it can be clarifying to see the stuff you’re missing out on — stuff you might find valuable even if you’re not clicking or commenting on it.

In 2016, it’s easy to forget that you even can see you Facebook News Feed chronologically. But it’s an important first step. To get started, head over to left-hand column, and hit the drop-down button for News Feed.

If you haven’t done this in a while, you’re probably in for a surprise. There will be people you’ve forgotten you were friends with on Facebook, publishers and pages for which you don’t remember hitting “Like.” But it’s also the best way to start to get a handle on what’s actually coming down from your News Feed. Spend a few days with this turned on and you’ll start to get a sense of what’s actually being posted.

You’ll probably need to reset it to Most Recent a few times; Facebook automatically reverts to Top Stories after a set amount of time unless you have a browser extension like FB Purity installed. Alternatively, you can set https://www.facebook.com/?sk=h_chr as a bookmark, which will always load up your News Feed with Most Recent selected.

If you have a decent amount of friends or have liked a lot of pages, you’ll likely find Most Recent kind of exhausting — Facebook quickly turns into a content stream with just slightly less churn than Twitter. But switch back and forth between Top Stories and Most Recent for a bit. See what Facebook is choosing to show — and what it’s choosing to hide.

Prune Your News Feed

The first step of trying to get my News Feed to be slightly less depressing was cutting out some of what comes up. Because Facebook wants your experience to be as low-effort as possible, you generally only have vague control over what you see in the News Feed — but even that is better than nothing.

This is where the small drop-down arrow on the top right of posts come in handy. What I was aiming for was sending signals to Facebook’s algorithm about what I actually wanted to see. You have three basic options:

You can hide a post from friends, which signals to Facebook you want to see less of someone’s posts when looking at Top Stories in your News Feed. It also (theoretically) signals to Facebook that you want to see less of these types of posts.

You can unfollow a friend who is only posting WikiLeaks conspiracy theories or rants about how Bernie Bros destroyed the Democratic Party, which means you won’t see them in your News Feed again (but will still remain friends with them, just in case).

Or, if you want to keep seeing pictures of someone’s dog but not their links to a particular site you think is misleading, toxic, or just plain bad, you can select “Hide All from American Freedom Eagle” (or whatever the site may be). This also has knock-on benefit of blocking anything else that your other friends share from that publisher — with a few clicks, you can make sure you’ll never see stories from your least favorite publishers on your Facebook feed ever again.

For me, this mainly meant going through my Most Recent and Top Stories News Feeds and trying to tone down the rage and despair from some, while leaving people and pages posting more informative stuff alone. I also took the time to make sure to click through to stories and hitting “Like” on things I did want, which signals to Facebook you want to see more of this.

To speed up the process, I also hit the upper right drop-down menu on my profile page and clicked Manage News Feed, which let me batch unfollow (or, in some cases, refollow) various people.

You also can go through all the pages you’ve liked and just ax the ones you no longer want to see stuff from. To do this, go to Pages in the left-hand side bar, and then hit Like Pages. Once you’ve clicked through, hit the right-most tab for Liked Pages. Then hit Review Liked Pages in the top right-hand pane.

You’ll get a long list of everything you’ve liked on Facebook. You can sort this a few different ways (by when you liked a page, the last time you interacted with a page) and then start clicking away on the pages you don’t want to follow anymore.

Break Out of Your Bubble

It’s easy to zap what you can see, but harder to find what you aren’t seeing. For me, this meant two things: finding pages that run counter to my own political viewpoint and liking them, and boosting how much I see from my conservative friends.

Finding and liking sites outside my own little piece of the political landscape was the easy part of it. I went for breadth here. To pull in more right-leaning stuff, I liked the Weekly Standard and the National Review, and then pulled in more from Facebook’s suggestions for similar pages (while avoiding the places I find truly noxious). Pretty quickly I was seeing stuff that I fundamentally disagreed with — a refreshing change of pace on Facebook.

The second part, boosting how much I see updates from friends on the other end of the political spectrum, was harder and is probably something I’ll have to signal to Facebook for a while to get its algorithm to take notice. (Apologies to people who discovered I had liked one of their posts from, like, late October — I’m just trying to train an algorithm to show me more of your point of view!) But I’ve already started seeing more of their posts show up in my News Feed’s Top Stories, where before I never saw them at all.

The goal here, for me, isn’t to find people to tangle with online about politics. It’s just about widening up what I see, and pushing back against Facebook’s natural inclination to keep anything that I might find disagreeable away from me.

… Or, Just Delete It All

All that said, this is an awful lot of work to make Facebook contort itself into something it clearly doesn’t want to be: a place to encounter ideas and things you don’t agree with or like. If, for whatever reason, you want to scrap the whole thing, that’s also doable. You have two basic options.

If you just want to put your Facebook profile on ice, you can deactivate it (and reactivate it at some later point if you change your mind). Get there by clicking the upper-right drop-down menu on your profile page and scrolling down to Settings. Once in Settings, hit Security and then Deactivate Your Account. Facebook will throw up a bunch of warnings, but click through them and your account is now in suspended animation.

But if you’re a believer in no half-measures, you can just delete the whole thing. In that case, head to https://www.facebook.com/help/delete_account and get started. It may take some time for Facebook to delete everything you’ve uploaded over the years, but eventually you’ll be gone. (If you have some stuff you want to save before you burn it all down, you can download your Facebook data by hitting the upper-right drop-down menu on any Facebook page, going to Settings, and then in General Account Settings clicking “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”)

Facebook’s Not Going to Change, So if You Want to Keep Using It, You’ll Have To

I don’t fault anyone who decides they’d rather just back out of Facebook entirely rather than deal with it anymore. That said, I do think there’s some small value in taking steps to indicate to Facebook you want to see more stuff from different points of view. In some gauzy movie version of this, millions of Americans would start actively seeking out diverse viewpoints, rewarding articles they might not agree with but can respect, slowly shifting Facebook’s algorithm toward displaying a News Feed that’s overall less blinkered and more open.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen, at least not anytime soon. Facebook’s ultra-efficient sorting and managing of what you see is a technological marvel, something very smart people have dedicated a good portion of their lives to. It’s a business driven by the bottom line and by needing to show stockholders that it can continue to grow its advertising revenue — and the News Feed being a welcoming warm bath of bland and agreeable stories is a big part of that.

If you want something different out of Facebook, you’ll need to do it yourself.

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How to Fix Your Facebook, for Your Own (and Everyone’s) Good