Revealed preference for donuts

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read
Revealed preference for donuts

Today’s adventure comes in 4 parts:

  1. A quote
  2. My opinion
  3. My contradictory opinion
  4. An unexpected endorsement of Bluesky

The quote

Will Oremus: Why Facebook Won’t Let You Control Your Own News Feed (via Casey Newton)

In 2014, another internal report, titled “Feed ranking is good,” summarized the results of tests that found allowing users to turn off the algorithm led them to spend less time in their news feeds, post less often and interact less. Ultimately, they began logging into Facebook less often, imperiling the years-long growth in user engagement that has long powered the company’s lucrative advertising business. Without an algorithm deciding which posts to show at the top of users’ feeds, concluded the report’s author, whose name was redacted, “Facebook would probably be shrinking.”

My opinion

I can see why Meta would see users spending less of their time on Facebook as a bad thing, but I’m not convinced that we should all feel the same. By a similar token, if you offer your child a donut or a strawberry and they pick the donut most of the time, would a parent say “well, the kid’s revealed preference is donuts, so I shall never feed them another fruit!”?

My opinion is that Meta employees, board members, investors, and shareholders should care about what gets people most addicted to social media, but if you’re not in one of those groups, then I think you should have a different criteria for what you think is good or bad for the company to do.

Quick aside, I think this is perspective more Apple fans should consider. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people argue with me about how they support App Store policies because those policies make Apple more money or that RCS would be bad on the iPhone because it would hurt iMessage’s lock in.

My other opinion

And yet, I don’t think that a reverse-chronological timeline is the objectively best way to do social media timelines.

On days where I’m hooked into my computer and am hitting up Mastodon every hour or so, then the chronological feed rocks. Same deal when a big event is going on and I want to keep up with the reactions in real time.

But on those occasions when I’m not terminally online, I find the chronological feed to be inconvenient. If I was off Mastodon for the weekend, I may come back to 1,000 posts in my timeline. My options are to either scroll through the whole mess over the better part of an hour or two, or to basically declare “inbox zero” and skip to the top. Neither is ideal.

What I find myself wishing for in these cases is an algorithm that knows who I interact with most, what posts in my feed got the most reactions, a bit of tuning to skip over stuff that got lots of reactions because it was incendiary, and to show me what I’m most likely to want to have seen right up front.

I always want a reverse-chronological feed to be in my social apps, and I always want that view to be a first class citizen in the UI (looking at you, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Threads…). I just also want to have an algorithmic option at times as well.

Hello, Bluesky

The Social Wars demand you pledge your allegiance to either Mastodon or Bluesky, and if I have to pick a side, I’m team Masto all day long. But Bluesky does have one thing that I really like.

Bluesky has this concept of “feeds” which lets you choose how you want your feed to be organized. You can pick a reverse-chronological one, posts trending from around the world, stuff liked by people you follow, or even something like popular posts from furries (not joking).

After you pick the ones you want, you can pin them to the top of the app and switch between them easily. Here’s my setup:

I can see all posts in my default tab, then stuff people I follow enjoy, then arty stuff, and finally the discover page, which is basically a “for you” thing.

Anyway, I’m not about to jump onto Bluesky for this alone, but I do think this is a compelling way to do things and I would love to see something like this become available in Ivory, which I use to read Mastodon.