Facebook Does the Wrong Thing for the Right Reason

Last week I listened to the debate on the radio show Q, “Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider?” Lots of great stuff I’m still chewing on, but one thing caught my attention.

One of the panelists talked about the problem of recency, which is a bias toward the most timely information. We tend to value the most recent inputs more highly than older information, regardless of whether the new information is more important—and whether it’s even correct.

There are a lot of problems with recency, but many of our social media tools and programs thrive on it.  The panelists talked a lot about how Reddit tried to identify the Boston Marathon bomber and ended up getting it wrong. One panelist suggested a system by which users can only “up-vote” a comment once an hour, to try and slow down the flurry of information that comes in faster than it can be checked.

I’ve been complaining for several days about Facebook’s changes to its newsfeed. Rather than displaying the most recent updates, it will re-display an old status update, provided there are recent comments on it. Which means that a post from 20 hours ago shows up again, even though a) I have already seen it and b) I didn’t comment or follow the post to begin with.

It occurs to me that Facebook might be trying to offset the recency effect. Perhaps they reason that a post that’s still being commented on days later needs to be seen: there’s still energy there;  a conversation continues to take place. Granted, the execution needs some serious tweaking—at the very least, there should be a “seen it and done with it” button—but it’s a decent impulse on their part, not to automatically prioritize the most recent thing as the most noteworthy thing.

Where do you see recency at work in our digital culture, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

5 thoughts on “Facebook Does the Wrong Thing for the Right Reason

  1. Rocky

    It forces the question: what do you most want to see? The things that are the newest or the things that are generating the most conversation?

  2. Bob Braxton

    I am not an expert in Biblical Hebrew – I understand that there is only “present” tense (the “now”) in the language. Good “News” in translation implies “latest and greatest” as well as the “Good” part (which we meet in creation story / stories Genesis); and when the Greek world (St. Paul as a writer) messed with the “now” and came around to “Second Coming” (breaking in on the present) then that seems to have created problems of its own. The newer the problem(s), the longer they seem to have been around. As an observer and writer of the “stream” (the “now”), lying on my back at the bottom of the river, I can see that much too much is happening at any moment, even in my own personal experience, to be able to “catch” everything. Amplify the Biblical “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

  3. Mamala

    I kind of like the way FB puts an older interesting post at the top of my feed. I’m slow to get involved sometimes and would like my voice heard.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Well that’s another interesting angle—not just combating the “look shiny objects!” effect, but giving a chance for introverts and others who need some time to think about their responses to be heard.


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