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Bring Back the Chronological Internet

Social media companies have tricked us into thinking their algorithmic feeds are for our benefit. If they really wanted to help us, they’d give us the tools to curate feeds ourselves.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The recent redesign of Snapchat has earned the ire of Kylie Jenner, the cosmetics company Maybelline, and, most alarmingly, disgruntled teens. Among the youth’s many gripes with the app overhaul: friends’ private messages and public stories are no longer presented in separate, reverse-chronological lists. Instead, they’ve been jammed together on a single screen, arranged via a secret algorithm that Snapchat says “makes it easier to find the friends you want to talk to, when you want to talk to them.”

Because I am not a teen and have not been for several years, Snapchat’s interface has always been kind of confusing to me. But the redesign takes one of the app’s most straightforward aspects—here’s a sequential list of what your friends have been up to in the past 24 hours—and turns it into a jumbled mess for the sake of boosting engagement. “I hate how my chats are out of order due to the stories!!” wrote one of the 1.2 million people who have signed a petition asking Snapchat to roll back the changes. Others described the revamp as “so confusing I wanna cry,” “the worst thing since brexit,” and “butt.”

While angry users see Snapchat’s change as radical, the app is simply aligning closer with the norms of the modern, algorithmically driven internet. Twitter, which once ping-ponged between the mundane and the momentous in real time, now elevates popular tweets rather than the most recent ones. The “insta” in Instagram is increasingly a misnomer because high-engagement posts (likely from brands or celebrities) can crop up in a user’s feed when they are days old. And then there’s the grandaddy of all algorithmic feeds, Facebook, which created such a spectacularly addictive and profitable model that competitors couldn’t help but copy it.

These companies pitch their algorithms as a benefit to the user. How else, after all, would someone be able to see all the best posts or tweets or snaps by their hundreds of internet “friends”? But the notion that navigating the internet must be a machine-optimized experience that surfaces the “best” content is a new—and reductive—one. Before Facebook set out on a doomed quest to build the “perfect personalized newspaper,” people used RSS feeds and Google Reader to gather headlines from news sources they valued. Before Twitter rewarded political game-theory threads with mega-virality, people wrote on independent blogs (and had an easier path to monetization than “check out my SoundCloud” pleas appended to viral tweets). Before social media made screaming into the digital void commonplace, people used chat rooms and message boards to form more intimate, organized digital communities. These were the feeds of their time, they were typically organized chronologically, and no one was left weeping at their keyboard because they’d missed out on the best meme of the day.

My point is not that we should return to the era of Xanga, but that the notion of an algorithmically driven internet is still relatively new and not some predetermined natural state for the digital world. We once made active use of digital tools to organize information online; now we allow ourselves to be passively monetized by digital platforms for the sake of convenience. Even Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were tools once, with discrete purposes and transparent methods for sharing content. Now they’re increasingly similar media ecosystems bent on keeping you logged in as long as possible in order to serve more ads. Snapchat, by giving its algorithms precedent over the intuitive ways that humans organize information, is on the same path.

Imagine, though, that we flipped the algorithmic feed paradigm. What if, when you signed into Facebook, all posts were presented in reverse-chronological order. Then Facebook used its algorithms to help you shape the kind of News Feed you want. Do you want to always see posts from immediate family members at the top of your feed? Do you want to see every post about Donald Trump up top, or perhaps none of them? Maybe you want a feed that excludes video, or prioritizes links shared by friends from news sources you trust. Facebook claims to have the ability to fine-tune every person’s News Feed along these dimensions; it just chooses to do so automatically in ways that align with its corporate interests instead of handing the controls over to users.

The major internet companies would be reluctant to adopt this stance for a number of reasons (though Twitter, for its part, does allow users to mute specific words or phrases). For one, they’re ardent proponents of seamless design, which demands that the inner workings of complex digital machinery be hidden behind dead-simple user interfaces. Second, ceding more control to users could lead to less time spent within these apps, as people chose to optimize their experience in ways that save time rather than waste it. Finally, algorithmic feeds help to maximize Likes, the currency that keeps people creating content on any platform. Switching to a chronological feed would be like taking money out of circulation.

But it’s clear that the current feeds, optimized to drive engagement, are badly broken. A tweet falsely claiming that Snapchat was considering reverting to its old design was retweeted 1.5 million times before it was deleted. Facebook served as a natural breeding ground for Russian propaganda because of the way divisive content flourishes on the site. YouTube is scrambling to explain how a conspiracy theory about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors made it to the top of its Trending list. These are all examples of internet companies’ algorithms working as intended. The problem is they’re not built to benefit anyone but the companies themselves and the people who most expertly exploit them.

The Snapchat controversy feels blessedly small potatoes compared to some of the societal havoc currently being wreaked by Silicon Valley, but the core frustration is the same. People want an online experience governed by a set of transparent rules they can understand, not a black box that allegedly knows what’s good for them.

“All I wish to do is share moments of my life with the people I care about most,” wrote Connor Paquette, one of the signers of the Snapchat petition. “That was the most enjoyable part of the app and now it’s been squeezed down.”