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How Facebook Could Break Free From the Engagement Trap

So what’s a better way to think about addressing these problems from a design perspective?

This question is one of the reasons why we founded the Institute, because there’s actually been a handful of things that have been tried in the space, to varying degrees of success, but a lot of that knowledge exists within small teams within companies and it hasn’t been broadly disseminated.

One of my favorite examples that I always point to is the Google search quality team and the work that they were doing at least until 2015 or so. Google built out search quality guidelines. Everything is very objective; they’re not qualitatively assessing the content, they’re just looking for objective criteria. A lot of it is actually just basic media literacy checks, like: All things being equal, it is better if the publisher or the creator of the content is transparent about who they are. Another one is various ways to assess how much effort went into the content, because all things being equal, it’s better if more effort is going in. The lowest-quality signals here would be, is the content copied from somewhere else?

On this point, though, about determining measures of quality, it seems, on the one hand, like: Duh, of course platforms should try to show users the good and not show them the bad. But it seems they shy away from this, at least in Facebook’s case, because they’re afraid to be seen as playing favorites, especially among user-generated content.

A lot of the social media companies coming out of the 2000s era of the internet, a lot of their mission statements and their values are all toward giving everyone a voice. YouTube’s mission statement is “Give everyone a voice and show them the world.” Twitter’s mission statement is, I forget exactly—

“To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.”

“Instantly without barriers,” yeah. Facebook’s early mission statement was like, “connect everyone in the world.”

All these mission statements are very much just like, “Let everyone speak, show everyone everything, put everyone together,” and these aren’t amenable to any objective definition of quality, to saying what is the kind of content that we want to succeed on the platform.

And they’re all very growth-amenable. We should not at all be surprised that the big platforms that survived the first generation or two of social media companies were the ones that prioritized growth, the ones that saw that the bigger you are, the more useful you are, and so you have to get as big as possible as fast as possible.

There’s a pessimistic implication of that, which is, Facebook and other dominant platforms make a ton of money doing things the way they do them now. And yet one thing that the Facebook Papers revealed is that as dominant as Facebook—or Meta—is in the market, they’re still really scared about potential rivals like TikTok. So if you’re proposing making changes that could sacrifice some of that short-term immediate engagement, you imagine the leaders of these companies thinking they can’t take the risk of some bored kid opening up TikTok because Facebook is trying to make them read a New Yorker article. So are we being naive even talking about platforms changing course in this way?

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