The weeks of late summer are usually devoid of major news. Not this year. The Aug. 9 slaying of unarmed teenager Mike Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo., has led to a week of protests, arrests, and the deployment of the National Guard.
At the same time, but seemingly in a different universe, there’s the “ice bucket challenge,” a series of videos in which celebrities and other people indicate their support of fighting ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, by dumping cold water on their heads. The unexpectedly viral campaign has raised $15 million for the cause.
Both of those stories have illuminated the strengths and weaknesses of our two major social networks that function as windows to the world—Facebook and Twitter.
As others have pointed out, Twitter has become a gripping nightly forum to follow the protests in Ferguson. National journalists such as CNN’s Jake Tapper are tweeting from the scene while a few relative unknowns like Vice reporter Tim Pool have delivered riveting live video of the protests. Twitter has surpassed the major news networks in providing a visceral sense of an unfolding social disaster and in provoking attendant outrage in many who think the police have badly overreached.
At the same time, Facebook seems devoid of unhappy news from Ferguson and elsewhere, with some complaining about feeds filled with trivial ice bucket videos, friends’ vacation photos, and (on more of a down note) remembrances and trivia about the late actor Robin Williams. On Facebook, your friends aren’t bearing witness to public demonstrations of civil unrest. They’re in Martha’s Vineyard and really want you to see photos of their kids eating ice cream.
The difference in content highlights how each service approaches presenting the material posted by its users. Facebook’s algorithms filter the news, presenting a selective feed of updates tailored to a user’s individual preferences and past actions. Twitter, on the other hand, lets it all fly: Each post from people that you follow is presented in chronological order, untainted by an invisible hand.
Some have accused Facebook of using its algorithm as a sort of virtual censor, intentionally removing depressing stuff from Ferguson and elsewhere.
This is so true and troubling “@monteiro: If you want to pretend Ferguson isn’t happening just go to Facebook.”
— Tim Dickinson (@7im) August 19, 2014
I don’t think Facebook is intentionally hiding the bad news. Instead, #Ferguson highlights how we use the services in different ways. On Facebook, we connect primarily with friends to share more personal updates. There may be a bias toward sharing less controversial material, although no one in my feed seemed to shy from expressing strong opinions about the recent crisis in Gaza. Mostly we still use Facebook to keep up with each other’s lives. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg wants to make Facebook the front door for all news, but he’s been hemmed in all along by user preferences. When presented with a choice between watching a cat video or a city tear-gassing its populace, most people are going to click on the cat video.
On Twitter, though, people have generally sought out connections not only to their colleagues but to newsmakers and reporters. The dialogue there is more chaotic, more serious, more visceral. There is also just as much noise, time-wasting triviality, and plenty of room for grandstanding.
In recent months, both social networks have made moves toward becoming more like each other. Facebook has added trending topics to capture pieces of the zeitgeist it might be missing. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has suggested Twitter is experimenting with adding Facebook-style filtering, an effort to broaden the service’s appeal to users who may not want to keep their nose in the news each night.
The past week’s events show why these companies may be making a mistake, or at least wasting their energy. Twitter and Facebook each have strengths and weaknesses. That’s why they complement each other so well—and why we need both.