Last Tuesday night, Shani Hilton — head of US news at BuzzFeed, apparent breakfast lover, and my Facebook friend — posted a simple status: "Has anyone made overnight oats before?"
Shani’s quest for sensible breakfast advice and its string of replies has remained at the top of my Facebook feed for a week now. Every time I check Facebook for whatever the reason I compulsively check it multiple times a day, the overnight oats post glares back at me.
I never commented on it. I didn’t “like” it. I don’t even like overnight oats. I have no oat advice. This is not a topic I care about.
On Sunday, a full five days after Shani had posed the oat query, the oats were still at the top of my Facebook feed. They were even beating out an engagement and a pregnancy announcement — the gold standard of “sticky” Facebook content. I couldn’t take it anymore. The oat talk had taken over my life. Chia seeds, maple syrup, blueberries, whether to use regular or almond milk, the great debate over Greek yogurt. The intricacies of overnight oats had ground my mental state to the point of madness. And honestly, I still don’t really know what overnight oats are (are they different than oatmeal? Do they actually take a whole night?).
You know that thing where you say a word a bunch of times until it sounds really weird and not like a word at all? Oats. OATS. Ooooaaaatttssss. Oats. Fucking crazy, man.
This summer, Facebook announced that it was tweaking its News Feed algorithm — the thing that decides what goes to the top of your feed and what gets buried — to prioritize things posted by your actual friends, and to deprioritize brand pages and links to publishers (aka articles on websites like BuzzFeed). The reaction to this was mostly hand-wringing about the potential effect on publishers — like BuzzFeed — which get a large chunk of their traffic from people sharing their content on Facebook.
Had Facebook toyed with these publishers, hypnotizing them into submission with a giant firehose of traffic, only to cruelly turn the faucet down to a trickle? Did Facebook ever care about publishing anyway? Or did it just care about “media” and “news” only when it was the one thing Twitter was beating it at, and as soon as it crushed its rival (however potentially ham-fistedly), it lost interest and moved on to the next shiny thing — video? Livestreams? Bots?
Or perhaps it was just going back to basics — people just want to use Facebook to interact with their friends, not to see a bunch of links to articles.
Interesting, but none of this is really relevant to my overnight oats problem.
Shani and I share a lot (97!) of mutual Facebook friends, mainly co-workers here at BuzzFeed. So some of those replies with oat advice were from mutual friends. That’s an indicator to Facebook that this post must be something I’m interested in — look! Your mutual friends are discussing it! And because many of those mutual friends are also friends with each other, it kept bumping the post up to them as well, encouraging them to chime in with their favorite mix-ins. The cycle kept going and going, making Facebook more and more convinced that I would care about it.
I asked (on Twitter, of course) if anyone else had noticed lately that old posts had stayed “stuck” at the top of their Facebook feeds for longer than normal. Several people had. Indeed, other co-workers and friends of Shani said that they too had had her oats post stuck at the top of their Facebook feed for days.
Facebook’s new News Feed is operating based on the idea that you care more about what your friends have to say and their photos and videos than you do about links they post. Which is probably true! But even if it’s trying to be more friend-friendly, the News Feed is still controlled by an algorithm. Based on a years-long friendship and a number of data points, the algorithm has figured out (I’m assuming — it’s a trade secret how the algorithm actually works, but it’s easy to guess) that I tend to be interested in what Shani posts.
Yet there is no way for it to understand that I do not care about overnight oats. That, in fact, I really, really don’t care about overnight oats and I really don’t want to keep seeing a bunch of fucking overnight oat tips every time I check fucking Facebook.
What the oats revealed was machine learning's limited understanding of friendship. There’s always been something a little cold and inhuman about the way that Facebook outwardly shows its understanding of how a human uses its service. When it rolled out its first Messenger bot earlier this year, it was a shopping bot to help you pick out clothing and shoes from an online store — the best way I found at the time to describe the experience is “this is something someone who works at Facebook would want to use.” It ignored the whimsy and pleasure of an online clothes shopping experience, where the user can browse for what they like. Instead, it just showed you just a few items in your price range in a generic category like “sneakers.” Messenger bots for weather and news were similarly panned at their launch for being glitchy and unuseful. Tech companies in general seem prone to explaining their services in this weird treacly simulacra of what a real human actually is. For a long time, the demonstration videos for new Apple features always seemed geared toward this imaginary perfect fortysomething dad who loves exercising and just wants to share photos of his kids and find a great local sushi spot — I call him “Apple Man.” All the problems in his life can be solved by a slight new improvement in UI.
But human relationships are messy in ways that technology and social platforms can’t really deal with. People get divorced but feel ashamed to announce it, they have weird passive-aggressive fights with their friends, they repeatedly lurk on the page of their partner’s ex. They have preferences that are not stated in their likes, or they outgrow those likes after a few years. If you look in your settings at what Facebook is telling advertisers it knows about you, you will be shocked at both how creepily right it is and how hilariously wrong it is.
Facebook is sometimes like the relative who thinks you still love horses because you were really into horses when you were 14 and keeps sending you birthday cards with horses on them. This uncanny feeling of someone sort of knowing you but not really is echoed all over the web. Like LinkedIn somehow suggesting that you add someone you went on a blind date with years ago to your professional network. Or when you buy that pair of shoes online but the Zappos ads for them follow you around every new site you visit seemingly forever, like a case of dynamic advertising HPV.
You, too, may have noticed in the last few weeks that certain posts from your friends seem to linger at the top of the News Feed for longer than usual — days even. Or that you have to scroll down farther to see something that you haven’t already seen. If you’re a Facebook addict who checks multiple times a day and is used to fresh content, this is really annoying. Maybe it keeps showing you the same boring photo or post.
Or perhaps the real problem is that the limit of Facebook’s algorithm is that the only material it's given to work with is who your friends are. If your friends are boring, you’re stuck with a boring feed.
But assuming you aren’t a monster, you like your friends. And Facebook knows that. But it doesn’t know that sometimes you don’t give a shit about what they post.
Point is, if you have good ideas about how to make overnight oats, please post in the comments below.