What's Powering Facebook’s Reality Distortion Field?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 11:33 AM

One of the old but useful cliches about Steve Jobs-era Apple was that the company had a “reality distortion field.” What that meant was that through some combination of Jobs’s showmanship and journalists’ credulity, Apple could take a decent, well-designed product, and convince reporters to write about it like it was a revolutionary, world-changing invention. And Apple could pull this trick off about once a year.

I think we’re starting to glimpse the outline of a new reality distortion field. But this one is around Facebook, and unlike Apple’s, it doesn’t really redound to the company’s benefit.

In Slate, Will Oremus has a nice piece debunking incendiary claims that Buzzfeed owes some of its traffic success to a scheme that essentially amounts to Facebook payola. These claims seem baseless, and Oremus dispatches them nicely. His broader point is that there’s a culture of journalists who are Facebook truthers - they’ll believe anything about the company “as long as it’s totally outlandish.”

That’s been my experience too. In December, we did a post debunking a dubious “Facebook is Dying” study. A month later, another study popped up, one with equally dubious methodology, and it felt almost boring to knock that one down, but we did. We’re halfway through February, but I’d be surprised if the month ends without one more big, silly, pseudo-academic study that promises the world’s second most popular website will be gone any day now. Everyone’ll read the stories, everyone will pass them around, but there’s no evidence to believe that they’re based in fact.

So what’s powering Facebook’s reality distortion field?

One explanation is that it runs on cynical traffic hounding. Silly Facebook stories get read. One reason for that is that most of us use Facebook, so there’s a built-in audience for Facebook news. But maybe just as importantly there's a cycle that happens. Facebook drives news traffic. News stories about Facebook do well on Facebook. Which means there's a multiplier effect. This is a real thing that we've experienced at TLDR. One of the more popular posts we’ve written was about how people often don’t notice that you can view the edit history of a Facebook post. It was not that great of a post! But it hooked into the Facebook web traffic vortex, so a lot of people read it. 

Anyway. If you assume that journalists aren’t just being cynical, I think there’s a complementary explanation for what’s going on, which is that we’re all just really anxious. Facebook is relatively young (it just turned ten. Ten!) The company’s amassed a ton of power and reshaped our lives very quickly, sometimes in ways we wish it hadn’t. And Facebook, particularly in the past, has been cavalier about user’s wishes. Privacy policies get changed, features get added or taken away. Facebook is like an online country we all belong to, but that country is not a democracy. So whether you’re a journalist or just a regular Facebook user, you might have an inborne anxiety about the company, and you might be more ready to believe stories that affirm that anxiety.

We all ought to be skeptical about these pieces, not just because it’s better for people to write true things than fake things, but because these fake stories crowd out real, more interesting stories. Fake stories about questionable behavior exhaust people’s appetite for real stories about real questionable behavior. Facebook really does have a lot of power and responsibility, and we should keep paying attention to it. But next time you see a blockbuster headline about Facebook's imminent death or latest misdeeds, it’s worth squinting to see if it’s real or not.

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. You can subscribe to our podcast here. You can follow our blog here. We’re also on Twitter, and we play Team Fortress 2 more or less constantly, so find us there if you like to communicate via computer games from six years ago.

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