How Facebook’s News Feed Changed the Internet

Before the News Feed, we navigated the internet at our leisure. But on one fateful day in 2006, it started organizing itself around us.,

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The Day Facebook Ruined the Internet

Before the News Feed, we navigated the internet at our leisure. But one day in 2006, it started organizing itself around us.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 5, 2006, before the sun came up, Facebook, seeking total dominance of the social media space, changed from an interactive library of individual profiles to a customized, algorithmically curated, fluid space it called the News Feed. And our relationship with the internet and with each other was changed forever. Up until that moment, the internet was a shared landscape. Users were explorers who moved through the space, organizing themselves into communities through profiles, blogs, chat rooms, and message boards. This original framework was exemplified in spaces like GeoCities, where users could design totally unique web pages about whatever they were passionate about and intentionally connect with others who shared interests or obsessions. Although just like the physical world the virtual landscape was constantly changing, these changes were experienced by everyone together. We were all seeing and moving through the same geography. In the early morning of September 5, 2006, we were abruptly asked to accept an entirely new role– to sit down, sit back, and have the journey projected at us in a roaring wave of digital consciousness that was at the same time a laboratory monitoring our choices within the feed in order to tweak our future experiences. “So my first project at Facebook was News Feed. It was an awesome idea. We had launched News Feed in the dead of the night. We were celebrating, popping bottles of champagne. We had no idea what was in store for us the next morning.” Reaction was swift and angry. People overwhelmingly hated the change. Dissent rallied in a new Facebook group called Students against Facebook News Feed. It quickly grew to over 750,000 members within two days. “Now, at this point, a lot of folks both internal and external wanted us to shut News Feed down. But we didn’t. News Feed was actually working. Amidst all that chaos and all that noise, we noticed something unusual. Even though everyone said they hated it, engagement had doubled. There were more page views than they ever were before. And the harshest critics, the very people who said they hated Facebook, were able to spread the word and organize because of News Feed.” Now, in part because of their anger, users were already spending more time on Facebook. In response to the blowback, Mark Zuckerberg posted the following message. Quote, ‘Calm down. Breathe. We hear you. We didn’t take away any privacy options.’ This reassurance from on high misses the point of what was really going on. What people were really responding to was a deeper and much more alienating feeling. And it was a feeling we were all experiencing for the very first time. Whereas before we were all looking at the same thing sharing in a communal landscape, we woke up on September 5, 2006, each of us thrust into our own new dimension. We were suddenly alone floating in a space of obscure rules composed of our own perceived preferences. The content and experience is unique to each individual and also different each and every time you went to the site. On top of this, for the first time, there was no human individual curating or intervening in our immediate experience. When looking at the website at any given moment, we were now all alone with an uncanny, nonhuman intelligence controlling what we saw and also gazing silently back at us. Algorithms were now at the reins reflecting ourselves back to us in ways that the average user could not comprehend. The only ones who could understand what was happening were Facebook’s programmers sealed away in Silicon Valley. And even they could not have looked at your Facebook News Feed and told you precisely why the algorithm had shown you any one particular image or post at that exact moment. It’s important to remember that on that day in 2006, this experience was entirely new to almost everyone. Google had begun testing out personalized search results by then but only for users with Google accounts, which at that time was not most people. The experiment of the completely customized, algorithmically tailored Facebook News Feed was on a massive new scale. This was an ominous and disorienting feeling, a foreshadowing of a new world. “Who here remembers Facebook before News Feed? It was a static homepage. To find information, you basically went to one person’s profile and then another and then another. It was hugely inefficient. We knew we could do better. Facebook was obviously about people.” It’s strange to see Facebook so easily dismiss the old model of social media pre-September 5, when the internet was a landscape of explorers and self-organizing builders. Communities most certainly thrived in that environment. But back then, users felt empowered to self organize into those communities. This, from the perspective of Facebook, was simply inefficient. We know the rest of the story. This change, which resulted in a huge increase in engagement and massive profits for Facebook, set the stage for a totally new ecosystem replicated everywhere else on the internet. Today, our online interactions, our search results, our music, our shopping, our hiring practices are all mediated by the feedback loop of increasingly powerful AI. The effect that this has had on us personally is to become acclimated to a permanent disorientation, a fluidity of place and position. When there’s no fixed place to stand, when the landscape is different at every moment for every person, then we, the users, are positioned to feel passive, immobile, and distinct, islands in a roaring stream of data. The people at the helm of these changes, the so-called disrupters, profit in a world made up of atomized consumers and lone gig workers, each of us tucked away in our own unique customized terrain as opposed to actual communities navigating a collective landscape. This is not an accident, and it wasn’t inevitable. It is an ideology. Meanwhile, Facebook itself now looks more like a graveyard every day as the nomads that it created move elsewhere. The Facebook group Students against Facebook News Feed is still up. You can visit it. For years, it has been populated entirely by advertising bots posting blindly on top of one another, a mystical shrine to Facebook’s first real community of the new internet.

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Before the News Feed, we navigated the internet at our leisure. But one day in 2006, it started organizing itself around us.

Video by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman

Mr. Hurwitz-Goodman is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

Your uncle caught a flounder this afternoon. President Biden said something about the Middle East. It’s your boss’s birthday. Your unrequited crush from sophomore year is with some dude on a beach in the Florida Panhandle and drinking a beer.

Feeds, updated in real time and tailored to individual users, have become a standard feature of online social networks. In the Opinion video above, Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, traces the proliferation of these streams of curated updates to one day in September 2006 — the day Facebook switched on its News Feed.

The News Feed’s launch had a seismic impact on the internet both in the short term — by inducing widespread apoplexy among Facebook users — and in the long term by fundamentally changing the social media landscape and experience. But Mr. Hurwitz-Goodman argues that the News Feed and the internetwide transformations it inspired resulted in not only a decrease in privacy but also a loss of user autonomy and an erosion of a widely shared sense of community.

Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

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