Google is set to change its homepage for the first time in 22 years, adopting a similar, personalised newsfeed experience to Facebook. Facebook and Google are both goliaths that have evolved considerably since their inceptions. Both have jostled over each other’s ‘territories’, with Google trying Google+ to own the social space, and Facebook increasingly becoming a news-focused intermediary. While Facebook relies on the user as curator, Google’s complex algorithms will extend the search experience based on a user’s browsing habits and data.
The nature and importance of news has evolved considerably over the years, especially since the ubiquitous rise of social media. News – its future fate – has been very topical of late, with The Atlantic’s article predicting Facebook to be the catalyst for the casualty of news organisations. In the article, the journalist, Adrienne Lafrance, links Facebook’s manifesto mission to build a ‘civically-engaged, informed community’ to an underlying ambition to ‘build a news organisation without journalists’. Paranoid or prophetic?
Taking over the functions of a traditional news organisation, Lafrance, believes Facebook positions its users in the role of editor. It’s the user’s responsibility to train the social media giant’s complex learning algorithms to curate content specifically for that individual, based on the person’s input and behaviour. Users provide much of the content seen on social media, and they curate it as well. In this way, Facebook plays the role of an intermediary.
How far then does the role of the intermediary extend to censoring potentially offensive content and fake news? When the Guardian revealed the leaked ‘Facebook Files’ – the unconfirmed training documents Facebook’s content moderators adhere to – it’s evident that, as far as possible, the social platform aims to promote free speech. Generally, the flagging of problematic content is again outsourced to users, although there are certain posts the company will not tolerate – those that ‘could credibly cause real-world harm’ according to one training document.
Alexis Madrigal’s The Atlantic article on the Facebook Files suggests that Facebook doesn’t yet understand its own model and the extent to which it’s changed the nature of our conversation. Conversing on social media is not the same as sharing insights in ‘real life’ – arguably, there’s more at stake.
With Facebook still negotiating its news agenda, Google is about to remodel its homepage to prioritise personalised information. On 20 July 2017, the Guardian reported that Google is set to change its homepage configuration for the first time since 1996.
Those using Google’s Android and iOS mobile apps will already be familiar with the news feed layout. The homepage will be an extension of this home-screen, according to the Guardian, with further personalisation facilitated by Google’s complex machine-learning algorithms. Like Facebook, the feed will be customised to the user, based on browsing history and regional and global trends. Along with event and news updates, users will also get reminders about upcoming calendar events – syncing personal engagements with our irrepressible desire for information. The change will make Google.com the biggest web portal in the world – further entrenching it as untouchable from a competition perspective.
Do we want a search engine to remind us how much it knows about every aspect of our lives by telling us when we’re late for a date with a dentist or due for dinner? Is this blurring of lines between our personal lives and our news-consuming habits something everyone will appreciate? Perhaps not. But then, we’re still a long way off fully understanding the shift in privacy, the new nature of news, and the compartmentalisation of our different selves across all the different online platforms we operate on.