Ferguson Shows the Dark Side of Algorithms, Bright Side of Twitter
Facebook disappointed many social media users in the immediate aftermath of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. on August 9. While updates, photos, and video flew in at a mile a minute on Twitter, they were noticeably absent from Facebook feeds.
Many readers with a deep interest in breaking news and social justice issues who were eagerly following the #Ferguson hashtag on Twitter for more information found Facebook’s algorithm-driven blackout more than a little insulting. It was the social media equivalent of somebody grabbing a copy of the morning paper, deciding the serious front page headlines wouldn’t be interesting, and “curating” the content by providing clips of cartoons and celebrity gossip instead.
Facebook is in a tough spot. They feel their algorithm is necessary for optimizing their users’ experiences as friends lists just get bigger and bigger. But the algorithm can’t tell who donated to Beacon to support on-the-ground coverage in Ferguson by experienced reporters, and it doesn’t have a list of who is eagerly following the updates on Circa. It can’t read the hearts and minds of Facebook’s user base, and Ferguson was proof that algorithm-customized experiences can have unintended and sometimes negative consequences.
The ordeal also highlighted the need for a global platform that provides instant, unfiltered access to news. As David Carr notes, Twitter is serving that purpose brilliantly right now. It’s one of the last places where you can curate your own real-time news, whether or not it’s trending. Even if you read the front page of The New York Times, you’re dealing with some level of curation.
That’s why it’s so troubling that in last month’s earnings call, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wouldn’t rule out implementing a Facebook-like algorithm for curating streams, something that may appease shareholders and make Twitter more appealing to mainstream users.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. As noisy as social media can be, the beauty of it is that individuals can share their perspectives and experiences without having to get a gatekeeper’s blessing, and that those seeking that very information can find it—and find it fast.Image by Charlie Riedel