Word came out earlier this week that Facebook is running an experiment, giving a small number of users in New Zealand upvote/downvote buttons on comments. I’m wondering what Facebook is looking to learn.
Upvotes and downvotes have been around since forever on gamified platforms like Reddit and Stack Overflow. Voting introduces a sense of right or wrong in a community. It quantifies the value of your participation, turning your popularity, or lack thereof, into something measurable. It’s opinionated. Fittingly, voting is a functionality which took root in technical, programming-focused, and gaming-adjacent communities.
Facebook has a whole different premise than gamified discussion sites do. They built their social network around sharing and staying in contact with loved ones. They made it frictionless to share anything about yourself, in the hopes that you would share everything about yourself. Facebook makes money by using the data they have about you to show you extremely tailored ads. What you see in your Facebook timeline is algorithmically generated and optimized for content which you are most likely to react to, fueling engagement. Facebook has, of course, been under scrutiny since news of the data leak to Cambridge Analytica and investigations into how the site has been used to organize local violence in Sri Lanka.
So on the one hand, you have platforms which are about getting people to post and quantify the value of each other’s words (Reddit, Stack Overflow), and on the other, a social network which aims to make you observable and reactive (Facebook). And voting, a core functionality from one is being essentially air-dropped over to the other. Where could that be helpful? Where could that be harmful?
There’s been a lot of talk about fake news lately. I tend to think the definition of “fake news” is far more slippery than most of us care to believe, but that’s a post for another time. Point is, there’s concern that there’s no way to discredit something posted in bad faith on Facebook, and in the form of voting, there’s functionality which allows every day users to do just that. I get why added opinionated functionality might seem like the right counter-measure.
What I wonder is, will the mob mentality which tends to form up during user voting ultimately help or harm the nature of the interactions taking place? When asked, a company spokesperson said “People have told us they would like to see better public discussions on Facebook, and want spaces where people with different opinions can have more constructive dialogue…Our hope is that this feature will make it easier for us to create such spaces, by ranking the comments that readers believe deserve to rank highest, rather than the comments that get the strongest emotional reaction.” The idea that folks will believe the posts which should be ranked highest aren’t also the ones which emit the strongest emotional reaction runs counter to everything I’ve ever known about humans and keyboards.
Furthermore, when a post gets heavily downvoted…what happens? Will there be someone on the other side, at Facebook, able to step in? I’m guessing not. Will there be anything that happens when a comment is heavily downvoted? Unclear. Is this all about making sure we just keep clicking things? Maybe.
All in all, this sounds like an interesting experiment and I’m glad to see Facebook do something. I really hope they speak publicly about their findings. But I also see how this feature could cause users to double down on their existing disagreements, grudges, and gripes.
Finally, copping to the fact this is an experiment, this measure strikes me as misguided because voting sets users up to reach for a goal which Facebook has not defined. Whether you’re trying to drop the best meme, or the most articulately explained physics equation, seeking votes means you’re aspiring to be something valuable in the eyes of the group. What is it people are reaching for when they seek upvotes on their Facebook comments? What kind of discussion space is Facebook looking to create? How do the answers to the previous questions vary based on the demographics and context of the folks doing the posting? Without answering these, Facebook is simply bolting another tunnel onto the multi-level hamster mansion, and hoping the novelty of its presence gets the critters to stop fighting.