Nieman Foundation at Harvard
“Politics as a chronic stressor”: News about politics bums you out and can make you feel ill — but it also makes you take action
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Sept. 11, 2018, 7:01 p.m.
Audience & Social

From “uncool uncle” to “fun” “best friend”: Why people are turning from Facebook to…other Facebook-owned things for news

Facebook: “Sociopath,” “bipolar,” “uncool uncle,” “midlife crisis.” WhatsApp: “Best friend,” “sociable,” “fun,” “honest.”

Multiple surveys bear this out, and it probably matches your own experience as well: Facebook is no longer growing as a platform for news. In the U.S., for instance, young people’s use of Facebook for news fell by 20 percentage points between 2017 and 2018. And Pew reported this week that the percentage of U.S. adults who ever get news from social media — or from Facebook specifically — was just about flat between last year and this year.

It’s not that people are using their devices less; rather, they’re increasingly getting news from messaging apps, as reiterated in a report released Tuesday by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The report, conducted by Kantar Media, looks at the social media habits of users in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, and Germany; the entire sample was made up of people who said they got news from Facebook or messaging apps at least weekly. It’s designed to provide some color and qualitative information around the 2018 Digital News Report that the Reuters Institute released this summer, and to look more closely at the effects of Facebook’s January News Feed algorithm change on consumers (the research was conducted in February). “Why are consumers turning to new platforms to receive, comment upon, and share news?” the authors write. “Is there something about these platforms encouraging the change? This is ripe for exploration.”

It’s clear from Kantar’s research that Facebook is still a “default platform for many users,” even if they feel conflicted about that default status. “It’s a guilty pleasure and I hate it but I love it,” one U.S. male (in the 20- to 29-year-old age bracket) said. It’s “an distraction for filling time” and a key way to keep in touch with people (or just idly snoop on/keep an eye on acquaintances). But how passionate can you feel about something you also see as a complete waste of time? “Facebook is getting more and more unattractive and impersonal for me and so I write or post less,” said one German woman between the ages of 20 and 29. “Only 10 percent of my friends on Facebook are really friends for me.”

If Facebook’s algorithm change was meant to bring people back together on the platform — to get news out of the way and make room for intimacy and “meaningful social interaction” — this research, at least, suggests that that hasn’t worked. “Reducing the news sources is not that useful, unlike ads,” a Brazilian man between the ages of 30 and 45 said. Maybe it was already too late: As Reuters’ earlier report showed, people have begun the transition to messaging apps to share news and discuss personal topics.

From this new study:

We found people typically had groups set up in these [messaging] apps for family, for friends and for shared interests. The groups ranged between 3 or 4 people up to about 20, although a few examples included larger circles of friends. For example, one woman in the U.S. has a large “chicitas” group in Facebook Messenger that shares fashion tips, health news and gossip with her “sisterhood.” Another, more typically, has a “My family” group of nine people in WhatsApp where they discuss news about their home town and politics. There are similar examples across all four countries, with shared interests such as theater, a wedding group and holiday planning, through to mutual political interests that are more candidly shared in the privacy of a messaging app — a “Boo Trump Boo” WhatsApp group, for example, has four friends discussing the Trump presidency.

My favorite part of the study is that the researchers asked subjects to provide word associations for platforms, and here they are:

Facebook — multi-faceted, sociopath, bipolar, adaptive, ego-centric, social butterfly, uncool uncle, midlife crisis, clean, professional, generic.

Twitter — loud, doesn’t stop talking, loose, messy, celebrities, niche.

WhatsApp — best friend, sociable, fun, brings people together, straightforward, honest, reliable, faithful, discrete, nimble, agile, dynamic, current.

Facebook Messenger — Facebook’s little sister/brother, “wannabe,” clingy, needy, irritating, inferior, boring old lady, inconsistent, if not got WhatsApp.

Instagram — glamorous, model, vibrant, showy, vain, show-off, open-minded, stalker.

Snapchat — young, childish, impulsive, pretentious, artificial, distant.

The ironic thing, besides the fact that Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram and (obviously) Facebook Messenger, is that people say they are still getting much of the news that they discuss in their closed messaging groups from Facebook. A Brazilian man said, “Sometimes on WhatsApp all we share is the screen capture of the headline and we start debating the topic in the group.”

“The source is still Facebook because when we’re going to share something on WhatsApp, usually the article we’ve found is on Facebook. So Facebook is still king in that sense,” one U.S. man said.

The full report is here.

Photo of meerkats who’d definitely use WhatsApp if they could by Drew Anderson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 11, 2018, 7:01 p.m.
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