Hack the Facebook Algorithm for Spiritual Growth.

8 min. to read.

More than a billion people use Facebook. Facebook says that the average US user spends 40 minutes per day on the platform. 40 minutes reading and interacting with posts, photos and Facebook messages—every single day! There has arguably never been a more powerful force for social impact in human history.

We used to hang out in the town square. Some of us used to spend hours a week with our church community. Now, many of us are spending that precious time wandering the blue, virtual hallways of Facebook.

Spending that amount of time doing anything is bound to shape you, but with Facebook the shaping isn’t accidental. Facebook recently admitted to experimenting with people’s feeds with the intention of altering their moods. (See reporting in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Slate.com.) Facebook learned that by altering the general mood of the posts they show, they could directly impact the mood of the user! Scary, huh?

But even if Facebook wasn’t doing this kind of large-scale social manipulation, the time we spend on Facebook (any social media, really) will impact us. What we see there will shift our emotions, subtly altering our thinking.

This is happening. The Facebook algorithm that determines what posts you can see is already impacting you this way. Those silly memes, political rants, passive aggressive vaguebook posts, and all the pictures of everyone else’s’ best moments are shaping how you feel about yourself and the world. Anything that impacts your mood will also impact your relationships.

Something else is happening, too. It may seem crazy to say, but it’s true. The Facebook algorithm is impacting your personal and spiritual growth.

By beholding, we become changed.

The principle for how we grow and change presented in scripture is simple: By beholding we become changed. Beholding is about attention. The things you pay attention to can shape you. When you give consistent, regular and recurring attention to something, it will shape you. Period.

If you’re anywhere near the average—20 minutes per day globally, 40 minutes per day in the US—then your Facebook feed is altering who you are and who you are becoming. What does this mean for your spiritual life?

Start by understanding this: The Facebook algorithm isn’t your friend. Sure, it curates your feed based on computational intuition emerging from the ever-growing database of things you’ve liked, shared, commented on and clicked. But Facebook’s goal isn’t to help you be a better person. Facebook’s goal is to get you to spend more time on Facebook. But is that your goal?

“Facebook’s goal isn’t to help you be a better person. You’ve got to take responsibility for that yourself.”

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One of the core principles of spiritual growth is intentionality. We all are constantly being spiritually formed. We can’t escape it. But what we can do is recognize this and make choices about what we allow access to our minds and hearts.

If you have an intention of growing spiritually, and you are planning on using Facebook, then you need to have a plan about how you will use Facebook.

You could, of course, just bail on the whole thing. Delete your Facebook account. Some people have made that argument convincingly.

But, Facebook is also a powerful tool for connecting with people, as well as for learning and growing — as long as you take the Facebook Algorithm into account. So, what are we to do?

Use Facebook. Don’t let it use you.

Don’t use Facebook by accident. Don’t let it be just another diversion to occupy your attention. Decide why, how, and when you will use it. Here are some thoughts on how:

1. Be intentional about your time.

Facebook is designed as an infinite black hole. Posts lead to other posts. Notifications draw you back to check on conversations. Reading one article opens a list of articles like the one you just read. Friending one person adds more people you might know. It never ends.

Facebook’s goal is to get you to spend as much time as possible on their service. Without even noticing, Facebook encroaches minute-by-minute across your day. When this happens, you are not in charge. You are letting the agenda of Facebook and other people manage your time, and thus your attention. That means you’re letting other people shape who you are going to be. Decide when and for how long you’ll check Facebook and stick to your time.

2. Have a purpose for your time.

Avoid “Check the Fridge again” syndrome. You know the one. You’re hungry, but you don’t know what you want, so you stand aimlessly looking into the fridge. Nothing appeals, so you close the door. A few minutes later you’re back, scanning the shelves. A lot of us treat Facebook in this same way.

What’s going on? Am I missing out on anything fun or interesting? What’s up with this person? Are there any great events this week? Who’s online and available to chat? There are just so many options.

Instead of wandering aimlessly, have a purpose for your time on Facebook. When you passively click and browse you aren’t using Facebook. Facebook is using you.

Start by deciding what purpose Facebook serves for your life. Is it for staying in contact with long-distance friends and family? Is it for making deeper connections with friends? Is it for connecting with people you can learn from? Is it for encouragement? Get clear on WHY you are using Facebook. One you know the role that you want Facebook to play for you, then you can make sure you’re not wasting time in other ways.

3. Teach the Algorithm.

The purpose of Facebook’s algorithm is simple: Keep you on Facebook as long as possible. It does this by trying to serve “relevant content” to you. How does it know what’s relevant to you? It can’t read your mind, not really. It knows because you teach it.

Every time you interact with content, you feed information into the algorithm. Facebook knows everything you click, everything you share, everything you comment on. Facebook even knows how long you spend reading certain articles!

You’d think that things you “like” would have a lot of weight, but they don’t. Facebook knows what social scientists have known for years. People say they like things all the time, but the only real way to know what they like is from their behavior.

On Facebook, the behavior that Facebooks learns the most from is what you share, what you read, and what you comment on. This is why you can follow a musician or author’s page (like mine) and never see their posts. Facebook doesn’t care that much if you click “Like” on a page. Facebook pays close attention to what you comment on, what you share, and what you spend time reading.

Spend a lot of time debating politics with friends and sharing articles back and forth? Well, you are going to slowly see more political posts in your feed. The same is true with cat pictures, diet support groups, and self-help communities. Whatever you spend time interacting with will begin to change the tone and content in your feed.

So, now that you know this, what can you do? Don’t let Facebook’s algorithm decide what kind of content matters most to you. Feed the algorithm. Seek out the kinds of things that you want to see more of in your feed.

If you’re not seeing much from certain friends or family, it’s because Facebook has determined that you are not engaging them very much. To Facebook, that means they must not be relevant to you. To change this, seek those friends out. Comment on their posts. Like their pictures. Message them. The more you do this, the more you’ll see their content.

If you want to see more writing from certain authors, speakers or teachers, you have to do more than like their page. You have to check the page regularly for a while—and most of all, you need to share and comment on their posts. Until you do this repeatedly, Facebook won’t really believe your “like.”

If you want to have a Facebook feed that is positive, encouraging and helps you live a better life, then you need to seek out those types of people and pages, and actively engage them. If you spend a little bit of time each week seeking out the people and content that you want to see more of and interact with it, Facebook’s algorithm will learn. Slowly you will begin seeing more.

When you were a kid, your mom probably told you that who you hang out with matters. Well, that’s still true. If you’re going to be on Facebook, you’re going to be hanging out with a lot of people and ideas. Those people and ideas are shaping who you are becoming.

If you plan on using Facebook, make sure to use it with a plan and a purpose.

Use it to connect with amazing people and interesting ideas.

Use it to bring encouragement, hope and truth into your life.

Use it to deepen relationships and express care to people you love.

Use it to build and encourage your spiritual life.

Bottom line: if you don’t have a plan, your time on Facebook will be mostly about serving Facebook’s agenda. Instead, you can choose. Use Facebook as a tool to support becoming the kind of person you want to be.

20 thoughts on “Hack the Facebook Algorithm for Spiritual Growth.

  1. Great blog Marc! I’m planning on doing a Periscope on “Is Periscope making on anxious and depressed?” That touches on similar points and even recommendations ?

    1. That sounds interesting, Sovann. Let me know when it’s gonna happen. Maybe we can get coffee and you can tell me about what you’re learning about Periscope. I’m still trying to get my head around Periscope, Blab and a few other video based tools. I sense a lot of potential, but not sure how to use it.

  2. This is so good! Thinking about why you use Facebook and what you want from it, and not just letting it go along and dictate to you… I love this whole post.

    Lori

  3. Hi Marc – I do have a purpose each time I go onto Facebook and making connections with people of similar concerns and interests is what is being achieved as well as on occasion meeting them. As a Christian this is my “mission field” to encourage, support etc. Thank you for your message, it has been very helpful and insightful. God bless.

  4. Thanks for the reminder to be intentional.

    I bypass the algorithm by setting up Friend Lists for Friends and Interest Lists for Pages to see what I want to see. I avoid the News Feed and Pages Feed at all costs. 🙂

    1. That’s a great technique. It’s a little labor intensive to set up the lists to begin with, but it’s definitely worth it. As far as i know, the algorithm still impacts lists a bit, because it impacts sorting, and which posts get showed at what frequency, but you really limit the algorithm’s ability because each list can be a much smaller pool of posts total. That gets you much closer to a pure self-curated feed. It’s a great way to use Facebook.

    2. Yes, it helped that I set the lists up from the beginning (I’ve actually only been on Facebook a few months). But, I’m not sure they are affected by the algorithm; all posts seems to be shown chronologically (unless I’m missing something).

      UNFORTUNATELY, Facebook recently made it *much* more difficult to add Pages to Interest Lists, though. Used to be able to add directly from the Liked button; could even add them to a newly created list. Now, you have go to the individual Interest List and manually add a Page. To create a New List, you have to go to your Interests Lists (not always easy to get to) and add a new list, and then add the page. I assume this may be an effort to lead to more reliance on the algorithm!

    3. Hey Randy,

      Would you be willing to write up a simple step-by-step explainer for both of these processes? If you are willing, just post them here, and I’ll share that out on social media and with my email list. I think a simple, “How to” for both of these things would be really helpful to people.

    4. There may be other ways to set up lists, but this is how I manage Friends and Interests lists on Facebook:

      1. Go to https://www.facebook.com/bookmarks/lists to set up lists of Friends, either using predefined lists or your own.
      2. Go to each individual custom list pages to add Friends in the “Add friends to this list” box. You can also scroll over the Friends button (for that particular Friend) and click on “Add to another list” in the dropdown menu, which is what I do when I add a new Friend.
      3. Similarly, go https://www.facebook.com/bookmarks/interests to set up lists for Pages.
      4. Go to each individual Interest page to add Pages in the “Add to this list” box.
      5. I add each of my Friends and Interests lists to my Favorites in the Facebook menu and arrange them in the order I want (to add to Favorites, click on the gear icon beside the list name in the Facebook menu).
      6. When I’m on Facebook, I go through each list where posts appear chronologically.

      The good news is you see everything chronologically. The bad news is you see *everything* so you still have to be intentional. One other nice thing about lists is that you can direct a post to a specific list/group of Friends.

      Hope this helps!

  5. Thank you for explaining how FB works. I’m going to take time to ask God how he wants me to use this tool to grow In Him and reach out to a few, specific people. Blessings!

  6. I use Facebook as a business tool and for keeping in touch with family and friends. This article and the comments are timely and so practical. Thanks so much.

    1. I’m the same way. As an introvert, I really enjoy the ability to connect with people that Facebook gives me. But it can definitely work against me if I’m not careful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. I was spending that 40 min per day on FB. I became aware that it was stealing away from building personal relationships so I mostly stay off. When I am wondering “what’s up” in the world, I try to connect with a real person in a real way (usually one of my kids or friends). The rewards have been FAR ABOVE anything that feels like a connection via the web.

    1. Such a great reality check. Relationships matter most. If FB gets in the way, change how you use it or drop it.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. Marc, when I saw Kris Camealy and Shelly Miller highlight this, then my friend Tresta…well, clearly your message is greatly needed. When I shared this (on Facebook, of course) my daughter commented about how timely it was as well…
    I was just having an interior conversation about the dead space I feel in my relationship with Jesus….I realized it’s because there are so many other people in between ‘talking’ to me. I think I’m going to go back and do a little work.
    Excellent post, my friend.

    1. Thanks, Jody. It does seem to have struck a chord with folks. Taking the time and space you need in order to be able to hear the Still Small Voice is a vital spiritual practice.

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