The Great Trending Topics Debacle

Facebook officially killed the Trending Topics program.  It may have been the most foolhardy decision they have made recently (which is amidst a fair share of recent foolhardy steps).

Facebook (through Mark Zuckerberg) famously crystalized the prevalent Silicon Valley thinking into a quotable slogan: Move Fast and Break Things.

Of course, the impetus behind the worldview was that smart, young companies iterate and get products into the market before the competition. It was a reaction to long lead times that didn’t match customers’ expectations.

If it failed, it failedAnd the thinking likely went: if we fail, well, it just means we gotta do something else. But Facebook moved too often, too quickly, without thinking about the macro impact.

Exhibit A: Trending Topics. Facebook had always tried to be more than just the engine where people meet and share information. So it tried to add a layer of news gathering and news promotion. It has always wanted to dabble in media. By thrusting editorial decision-making on this massive platform – the largest collection of humans we have ever seen – it took an engineering approach to a decidedly human problem. The world is a mass of information and no one necessarily agrees to decide to prioritize what is the most important.

That, of course, was a simplistic world view. The arena of editorial decisions is not a place for a multi-billion-dollar company that just wants to keep the peace and count the advertising dollars. Traditional media outlets understand that they can’t appeal to everyone and most don’t try. They also have tend to have years upon years editorial experience that realize it’s not some simple task.

Trending topics is the quintessential example of the Facebookian worldview of “most fast and break things”. People want their news on the Facebook “homepage” – let’s deliver it them. If people don’t like it, we can just quietly remove it. But it didn’t have the experience, patience, and, especially, forethought to make this a successful endeavor. Well, it failed.

And it didn’t just fail. It tarnished Facebook’s image, caused incalculable hours of headaches away from its core mission, and has further jeopardized its relationship with the conservative audience.

Maybe all the planning in the world would haven’t saved trending topics, but I’m pretty sure they’ll put in the prep work the next time they want to do something like this.


Twitter on TV Was Always a Bad Idea

Twitter just announced that it is killing off its smart screen and box apps. Some of you may not have realized these even existed or believe they had died an ignominious death years ago. But it was not long ago that many were touting this as the next big thing in building community around the act of watching live television.

Anyone who tried out these apps found they were a pale imitation of the second-screen experience of using your phone or iPad. The reality is – and has always been – that people do not want a lot of things blocking the picture. The interfaces were clunky – the experience really only allowed for passive reading of tweets (anyone who shudders at using a directional cursor to enter their passwords on a smart TV or smart device can imagine how difficult it would be to tweet.

This death is more than just a specific failed initiative for Twitter. It was also thought to be the starting point of rolling out Twitter to many more non-mobile, non-desktop experiences. But as Twitter ages, it’s clear that people are interested using the service in very specific instances and not for others.

How Do You Fix Facebook When It Was Probably Born Broken?

Famous for issuing himself idiosyncratic personal challenges, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg realizes his billion-dollar company needs his full attention this year.

Zuck recently addressed – let’s be real – the world with some mea culpa and to inform it of changes to the services.

The company is awash in trouble, which is perhaps unavoidable when you’re this big and this impactful. But the scope of the trouble is damning. They have bungled their ad and video reporting, they’ve allowed abuse of their live video tool, and they’ve been used by Russian trolls and hackers to influence the US Presidential elections. That’s a lot with which to grapple.

Facebook’s solution this year is to minimize the amount of information you get from companies and news outlets and to increase the number of peer-to-peer messages you receive. This would be a solution if the problem were that we felt too disconnected.

But if you think deeper about the issue, you realize the issue is not the current iteration of Facebook, it’s Facebook, as intended, itself.

The reality is increasingly clear: social media is not good for us. Facebook, specifically, is probably not net positive for humanity. It has created a Moveable Thanksgiving dinner table feast, where arguments and rancor follow us everywhere. We are provided deep dives into the psyche of our friends and colleagues and neighbors, and we often come away disappointed or disgusted. We are often disappointed and disgusted with ourselves.

This is likely because that Facebook (and, yes, other social media platforms) is a relatively new way to communicate and we’re not sure how to handle it. Just imagine telling someone 15 years ago that they would be able to think of something, post it, and have hundreds of thousands of people see it within hours. It’s a platform that previously did not exist for 99.9% of the population.

A simple thought experiment: has your faith in humanity net risen or fallen since you have begun using social media? We obsess about Facebook and we obsess about our obsession with Facebook. We spend emotional energy we do not have in reserves worrying about our Facebook habit. It’s also clear that humanity has not used these new tools of communication to bridge gaps. We’re nastier than we ever have been to friends and family, we use social media as a tool to bludgeon those we disagree with, we’re unalarmed with the speed and ease in which we can use it to destroy careers. We’ve learned that bringing communities online has not produced a Utopia. Perhaps it never could. But some of the most vocal advocates for the power of the Internet to better humanity are seriously rethinking that stance. 

Being generous to the prophets Brand and Kelly et al, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that this version of a global village is not what they proposed or envisioned. Minorities are still denied equal voices on the internet — harassed off of it, or still unable to even get online. Massive amounts of data is still hidden behind firewalls or not online at all. Projects to bring more information online (such as Google Books) have foundered due to institutional obstruction or a change of priorities in those undertaking them. Governments still have secrets. Organizations such as Wikileaks that showed early promise in this regard have been re-cast as political tools through some mix of their own hubris and the adversarial efforts of the governments they seek to expose.

I recently sped through the fantastic series Halt and Catch Fire (originally broadcast on AMC, now available in full on Netflix). The drama, which imagines a small group of protagonists as being involved in all of the major foundational shifts of the computing revolution, reminds us in 2018 how optimistic people were about the computing revolution. In the second season, major protagonists are building a video-game-over-telephone modem, but stumble upon a chat function that becomes more popular than the games. There is a touching moment in the show where a customer talks about how she finally found people who understood her online. But then there is another scene where a gay employee thinks he is meeting someone he encountered online, but it ends up getting assaulted by a pack of homophobes. The Utopia, perhaps, was never there.

So how can Facebook fix itself is the only right solution is closing down? As someone who makes a living advising individuals and organizations to use social media, I can’t say I wish for this scenario. And any attempt at “regulation” brings with it significant freedom of speech issues. But Zuck is not addressing the problem head on – that unfettered conversation among small networks held in public is not the perfect world we thought it might be.