Why Facebook Doesn't Show You Ferguson Headlines

The differences between Facebook and Twitter come into sharp relief during every major news event — Robin Williams' death being the one possible exception.

Twitter provides by-the-second updates; Facebook continues showing your friends' food porn and ultrasound photos. If you turned to one vessel, you'd instantaneously know about a merciless ISIS beheading and escalating clashes in Ferguson, Missouri; if you relied solely on the other, you'd think the world was a temperate and healthful place.

Over the past few days, writers and researchers have offered their own theories as to why that happens.

The most provocative, thus far, comes from Ars Technica culture editor Casey Johnston, who believes Facebook's algorithm is set up to only show agreeable, reassuring posts. Johnston cites two studies to substantiate that claim: First, Facebook's now-infamous feed manipulation study, which showed that positive content begets more positive content; second, an earlier, independent study claiming that the diversity of opinions within a single friend network “makes everyone want to speak less.”

[jump] One could add, further, that the nature of the vessels shapes their content. Twitter's following system doesn't require users to be “friends” in order to share information; for many people it serves more as a news aggregate than as a networking system. As Johnston and others note, there's no secret Svengali manipulating the news feeds and determining how or where they get disseminated. Moreover, Twitter is powered by the constant churn of information. It's not a place to post lengthy profiles or wedding albums.

Facebook, in contrast, thrives on banality. It's where you go to find your friends' birthdays, check someone's relationship status, stalk an ex. You might hear tidbits about a protest several states away, but only if it gels with all the non-news that clogs your feed daily — and only if the algorithm deems you a protest sympathizer, GigaOm writer Matthew Ingram points out.

In other words, that old saw still holds: the medium is the message.

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