Facebook Wants to End the “Popularity Contest”

facebookFacebook has announced that it will begin testing the hiding of like counts from posts on user’s news feeds. Although authors will see likes on their own status updates, they will be unable to see the numbers of likes on updates posted by those who they follow. (They will still see the number of comments their followers’ posts get and be able to see the different emojis used to express likes on their posts.) According to Tech Crunch, the testing—which will begin in Australia—is being initiated in an effort to improve users’ well-being by eliminating the psychologically damaging “popularity contest.” How the change would look to the average user is illustrated in the graphic below.

Interestingly, although like counts would disappear from friends’ status updates, Facebook reports that the data would still be used by algorithms to drive traffic on user’s news feeds. So although one would not see the number of likes that a friend’s update is getting, if the update is popular it would presumably rise to the top of one’s news feed. Whether or not users would ultimately get wise to this remains to be seen.


What also remains to be seen is how hiding like counts will reduce or eliminate the practice of social comparison that critics have long believed leads to envy and ultimately to anxiety. A number of studies have shown that such problems occur most often as a result of “passive” Facebook use, in which users casually scroll through their news feeds. As reported on Tech Crunch, one 2013 study “found that 20 percent of envy-inducing situations that experiment participants experienced were on Facebook, and that ‘intensity of passive following is likely to reduce users’ life satisfaction in the long-run, as it triggers upward social comparison and invidious emotions.’” In other words, users “compare their seemingly boring life to the well-liked glamorous moments shared by friends or celebrities and conclude they were lesser.” Additionally, researchers assert that “Facebook users can even exhibit a ‘self-promotion – envy spiral’ where they increasingly adopt narcissistic behaviors and glorify their lives in an attempt to compete with the rest of their social graph.”  The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham describes this as “success theater:” where people only show the best side of themselves on social media, and hide all the warts of real life.

Over the years there has been no shortage of criticism leveled at Facebook for profiting from such user distress. Now, however, Facebook seems to be recognizing that taking care of users is in its best interest. As Mark Zuckerberg said in a recent conference call, “protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits. It’s important to remember that Facebook is about bringing people closer together and enabling meaningful social interactions; it’s not primarily about consuming content passively.” Time will tell if this particular test proves him right. According to Tech Crunch, “if the test improves people’s sense of well-being without tanking user engagement, it could expand to more countries or even roll out to everyone.” But what if the test does tank user engagement? Will we return to the popularity contest?

Sources: cnet.com; techcrunch.com

Experts: Digital Living Will (Mostly) Be Good

Slightly less than half of technology experts believe that digital living will help us over the course of the next decade. That’s one primary finding in a recent study of 1,150 technology experts in a joint effort between Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center.  The report, issued today, comes on the heels of several high profile technology debacles including Facebook’s recent admission that 87 million users’ data was compromised. Although the authors admit that their findings are not representative of all points of view, the study nevertheless “reveal[s] a wide range of valuable observations based on current trends.”

The experts that comprised the sample were asked a single question: “Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?” According to the authors three themes emerged from the open-ended responses to the question: people will be more helped than harmed when it comes to well-being; potential harms; and remedies that can mitigate foreseeable problems. Each theme was then broken down into five or six sub-categories.

Although the findings cannot be adequately summed up here, a variety of opinions were reflected in the findings. Daniel Weitzner, principle research scientist and founding director or MIT’s Internet Policy Research Initiative said, “Human beings want and need connection, and the internet is the ultimate connection machine. Whether on questions of politics, community affairs, science, education, romance or economic life, the internet does connect people with meaningful and rewarding information and relationships. … I have to feel confident that we can continue to gain fulfillment from these human connections.”

However, connectedness may come at a price. That view was expressed by well-known technology expert Nicholas Carr who said, “We now have a substantial body of empirical and experiential evidence on the personal effects of the internet, social media and smartphones. The news is not good. While there are certainly people who benefit from connectedness – those who have suffered social or physical isolation in the past, for instance – the evidence makes clear that, in general, the kind of constant, intrusive connectedness that now characterizes people’s lives has harmful cognitive and emotional consequences. Among other things, the research reveals a strong association, and likely a causal one, between heavy phone and internet use and losses of analytical and problem-solving skill, memory formation, contextual thinking, conversational depth and empathy as well as increases in anxiety.”

To me, the findings were not all that surprising; many of the experts whose opinions were published have long espoused different opinions on the future of digital living. MIT professor Sherry Turkle (one of the experts in the sample), for example, has published widely on different aspects of living with technology. Her 2012 book (revised in 2017) “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” was a New York Times Best Seller. The report, however, is still a good read and it’s good to have ready access to differing views of technology experts in a single document. You can download the entire document using this link: “The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World.”

–Jeffrey Maciejewski