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The Huffington Post’s ‘good news’ experiment is bad news for Facebook

What's the matter with happiness?


Rachel Kramer Bussel


Posted on Feb 4, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 3:11 pm CDT

I want this article to make you angry. OK, not really—I don’t actually have an agenda—but I wanted to start out by setting myself apart from Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, who sent her staff a memo last week stating, “While we will continue to cover the stories of what’s not working—political dysfunction, corruption, wrongdoing, etc.—as robustly as we always have, we want to show that the era of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is over, and start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things, overcoming great odds, and facing real challenges with perseverance, creativity, and grace.”

You might wonder, as I do, whether “positive contagion” is an oxymoron. You might ask, what’s wrong with good news? And in part, you’d be right. Nothing is inherently “wrong” with happy stories. There’s a reason Batkid was so popular. Huffington is not acting in a vacuum; she’s responding to changes in Facebook’s algorithm, which are based on scientific studies summarized aptly by Australia’s the Age: “[R]esearch suggests that Internet-users are motivated largely by raw, animal-brain feeling: awe and amusement get those clicks, but people rarely share articles that make them sad or confused or angry.”

That may be true, but an organization as large as the Huffington Post, especially one that will stop using Associated Press reports at the end of 2015 in favor of their in-house news service. To privilege happy stories over “unhappy” ones is to present a false view of the world. It’s not that uplifting, wonderful, tear-jerker events don’t happen every day, but rather that they happen mixed in with mundanity, tragedy and violence. It’s one thing for Dr. Oz to launch a magazine called The Good Life, and another entirely for Huffington to try to “relentlessly” try to get us to be happy by skewing the types of stories on her site. What gets left out of such an equation?

Here’s the thing: I’m all for us becoming better people, if we want to be. I don’t want happiness shoved down my throat.

This is part of “positive computing,” based on the book of the same name by Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters, a phrase which the Washington Post calls “the tech buzzword you need to know for 2015.” As summarized by the Post, “positive computing is a natural outgrowth of positive psychology, which focuses on what makes people well rather than what makes people ill.” It’s built around the idea that “Facebook should be a place for all of us to learn from past mistakes, in order to become wiser and more compassionate.” Here’s the thing: I’m all for us becoming better people, if we want to be. I don’t want happiness shoved down my throat.

The Huffington Post already has a Good News section, which is clearly popular, with over 800,000 Facebook fans. Clearly, people love kittens meeting ducklings, rare Beatles photos, and pit bulls in pajamas. But for many of us, good news is an antidote to the bad news that abounds in the real world. It works because it’s an alternative, an escape, not the default of our daily lives. I’m concerned that the Good News lens will start to color all the stories Huffington Post and other sites who use the same model tackle. What about blizzards, elections, wars? I imagine even the most cheerful person would eventually reach their “good news” limit and genuinely reach cute overload. I know I would much rather read about someone’s actual trip down the aisle than “17 LOL-Worthy Bouquet Toss Photos.”

Every site is going to face this balancing act and will deal with it in different ways. Even though Huffington acknowledged this duality in her 2014 end of the year memo to her staff, she hasn’t seemed to take it to heart. In the memo, she wrote, “I’m particularly proud of the commitment we made this year to not only relentlessly report on all the crises and problems we face, but to also shine a light on what was positive and inspiring—the stories of creativity, compassion, ingenuity and perseverance all too absent from what most of the media chooses to cover. Nowhere was this more evident than in our site-wide coverage of the events in Ferguson, which told the story of the conflict and division but also peoples’ powerful and humane responses.” 

Rather than truly acknowledging that good and bad coexist, Huffington seems to be kowtowing to Facebook’s algorithm.

Yet I wonder if their Ferguson coverage might have been different if filtered through this new positive-focused lens. Yes, there was a lot of positive activism and protest, but it was set against a backdrop of injustice and violence. Rather than truly acknowledging that good and bad coexist, Huffington seems to be kowtowing to Facebook’s algorithm, not recognizing their own power to make people think hard and grapple with the actual issues of the day, complex “downers” though they may be.

I’ve played with this on a personal level, depending on my mood and outlook. Yes, I’ve unfollowed people on social media if every post was whiny. I’ve also changed the way I used Facebook and Twitter—instead of posting passive-aggressive complaints, I try to offer solutions. I get that it’s tricky. Last night I read about the Metro North accident that killed seven people, on a line I’ve traveled often. It shook me up and activated my most paranoid, morbid tendencies. I tweeted about it, though I’m not totally sure what I wanted people to say. “Shit happens?” “You probably won’t die in a train crash?”

I asked my Facebook friends what they think about the site favoring positive news and got mixed responses. One wrote, “I love any posts that advocate animal rights but I get very disturbed when then include photos of abused animals. It can kill my whole day.” Another felt similarly: “I honestly like to go FB to to keep up with friends and I like to see more positive posts, which includes cute animal posts, happy news about kids, relationships, and jobs. I however seem to get a lot of posts that are political in nature, dealing with people trying to push their views on their friends or try to prove that ‘the other view’ is wrong.”

Me? I want realness.

Me? I want realness. It’s what I look for when I read personal essays and what I certainly want from my friends. The urge to spin our lives to seem more palatable seems dangerous; it has the potential to make those who are depressed or simply having a rough time feel even more isolated. Let’s not forget that people do also read stories that aren’t all smiles and rainbows. For instance, Linda Tirado’s 2013 essay “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense” went viral after it was published on Huffington Post, netting her a book deal and an invitation to the White House. But would it have passed the “good news” test? I’m not so sure.

Coincidentally, I got an email from Arianna Huffington yesterday with the subject line “Unplug and look up with Arianna Huffington.” Inside was a sales pitch for her Quarterly, her subscription box of “productivity tools.” For just $100, I can get a yoga DVD set, a custom “Look Up” bracelet, a “sleep your way to the top” pillow case, and a “fitness tracker, a sleep tracker, and overall health system.” Huffington seems to want to have her Good News and abandon it, too. If the point of the happy stories is to make our lives better, do we really need these pricey reminders to get offline? That question may not make you happy, but it’s worth considering.

Photo via C2MTL/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 4, 2015, 1:00 pm CST