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What the Tech: Facebook without news just proves that it’s worthless

Now that Facebook has banned the sharing of news content in Australia, it’s time to rethink what it actually offers us.

The other day, my flatmate caught me browsing Facebook. I know, I know. It’s one of those dirty habits that all of us give in to from time to time without even thinking, like biting your nails, scratching your rear end, or googling ‘where does Nigella Lawson live?’, but it’s still embarrassing when someone catches you in the act (especially if you’re doing all those things at once).

In my desperation to justify why I still bothered to scroll through the outmoded, unfashionable social network, I said it was because of the insightful articles that sometimes pop up. It’s true that you can “Like” and follow the pages of some of the world’s most esteemed broadsheets via Facebook, and there are genuinely some good reads that I’ve come across on the site. But it was a flimsy excuse for the reality, which does not concern the article themselves – who has time to read them these days? No, the one thing that most attracts me to news on Facebook is the comments.

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Any news aggregator can offer you the same bundle of headlines and articles, but who else can supply you with the delicious combination of horrendous insults, wilful misinterpretation of facts, sometimes (rarely) genuinely insightful comments, and, my favourite, the unsubtle trolling for incandescent reactions?

There are some true masters of this latter-day craft, such as Ken M. A recent comment below an article on Donald Trump reads: “this sound like slippery slope to criminalize political crimes”, which is enough to provoke an incredulous response, usually followed by a haughty, condescending riposte (such as “Vulgarity is the fool’s fig leaf”) that only acts as a red rag to a bull that needed precious little encouragement in the first place. It’s a modern day art form that’s just as beautiful to watch take place as any ancient ritual.

Another of the guilty pleasures the site has to offer is named “Angry people in local newspapers“. A loving tribute to the motley crew of stock characters who populate the pages of clickbait rags, the community expends its energy in finding people pulling sad faces for photographers after having faced some minor inconvenience. Residents point at something that has incurred their irritation (could be a pothole, could be a squeaky shopping trolley), and we see the blushing faces of people who are trying to convince readers (and themselves) that they are not guilty of the infractions they seem suspiciously likely to have committed; a tribe for whom Ron Hayward – who definitely didn’t spend £200 on pay-per-view porn – serves as a reluctant patron saint.

Of course in days gone past, more of this low-level drama was found organically. Cryptic posts such as “Don’t start on me because I will finish you” would be posted by acquaintances, and you could simply dive into the the popcorn packet as the replies flooded in: “Ive always got ur back hun x”, “Is this about me?”, “Say it to my face!!”.

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For a time, this activity was the twenty-first century equivalent of being a curtain-twitching nosy neighbour, and keeping up with the Joneses is always a far more interesting prospect than Keeping up with the Kardashians. But now, frankly, there’s precious little user-generated content on the social media platform, as writing statuses seems almost as quaint a method of communication as sending a telegram or a messenger pigeon.

Since original content has mostly dried up on the platform, the news-related spats I’ve discussed were one of the few things that drew me back to the site, like a moth to a flickering lightbulb on the verge of a fuse blowout. And then, it was announced that Facebook was banning all news content in Australia.

The action was taken due to a petty spat whereby the massive tech company would have to pay providers for news shared on the platform. There are a lot of societal repercussions to consider here, particularly about the role of big tech in our lives and the sharing of information (and its evil twin, misinformation).

More than anything, it just made me think that without news there’s simply not much at all that would bring me back to Facebook. There are better pictures on Instagram, better videos on YouTube, better memes on Twitter, and my friends can always contact me via WhatsApp. And yes, I am sadly familiar with which company owns two of those four platforms.

As a journalist I should be standing up and demanding Facebook to reinstate reputable news providers in Australia. But as a social media addict, I need to put a stop to my endless scrolling and do something more useful instead, like learning how to play the violin, ride a unicycle or speak Russian – a hattrick of skills I’d be far prouder of if my flatmate were to walk in on me performing all three at once.

So I have only one request: please, Mr Zuckerberg, ban Facebook news in this country too, and let me finally be free of your horrible little website.





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