Monday, July 18, 2016

Facebook's New Algorithm: “The Users Have Spoken and News Lost.”

“The users have spoken and news lost.”

That comment from Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed came back to me when a friend posted a complaint about the lack of news about the shootings in Dallas in his News Feed.

At first I thought very few of my friends had responded to the Dallas police shootings on your platform,” he wrote.

“I then saw that your trending list contains no direct reference to the shootings, only some low-ranking tangential pieces about politicians who have talked about it.”

His first thought was that Facebook was deliberately preventing news from Dallas from getting into his News Feed.

“Not so long ago, your company was accused by a former employee of suppressing news items popular among conservatives and their news outlets,” he stated.

“Now I believe it.”

With all due respect, my friend is wrong—sort of.

News about Dallas was prevented from getting into his News Feed, but not by Facebook. At least, not per se.

It was more the fault of his friends.

As Warzel pointed out in his article, what my friend experienced was the result of Facebook’s recent changes to its News Feed algorithm.

In late June, Facebook VP of product management Adam Mosseri announced that the social network had tweaked its News Feed algorithm to show more stories from friends and family members, and fewer from publishers of news.

In the note, he said the goal of News Feed “is to show people the stories that are most relevant to them.”

What this means, he said in another post, is that Facebook’s “top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to—starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook.”

To accomplish this, Facebook’s News Feed ranks stories you see, starting with information from your friends, he went on to say.

Or, as it is stated in Facebook’s News Feed values, “friends and family come first.”

What this means, according to its News Feed values, is that posts from friends and family will be put at the top, to make sure we don’t miss them.

Posts from organizations or media we follow will show up lower down the page.

Facebook’s research has also shows that, after friends and family, users have two other strong expectations from News Feed.

First, “people expect the stories in their feed to be meaningful to them.”

Second, the posts in News Feed should be a “source of entertainment . .  .  we work hard to try to understand and predict what posts on Facebook you find entertaining to make sure you don’t miss out on those.”

In an effort to counter accusations that it dictates what people see—my friend’s first assumption—Facebook maintains it is “not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about.

Instead, it says, “we are in the business of connecting people and ideas—matching people with the stories they find most meaningful.”

Its aim, it says, “is to deliver the types of stories we’ve gotten feedback that an individual person most wants to see.”

And how does Facebook know what you want to see? By the things you like, post and share.

Apparently, most of Facebook’s 1.65 billion users have decided that news is something they don’t want to see very much of.

As Warzel put it: “Every day legions of regular people across the world signal their preferences—voting with their News Feeds—in the form of likes, shares, comments, and friending, following, unfriending to Facebook’s data mothership, which collects these inputs with the utmost interest to inform the evolution of its products, like News Feed.”

A decision by Facebook to tweak News Feed away from news “is, in many ways, a reflection of the Facebook constituency’s attitude toward the news it sees.”

Or, to put it another way, “if your friends don’t interact with the news, by either commenting or liking it, you’re less likely to see it,” Warzel says.

What does this mean for my friend? I haven't said this to him, but maybe he needs to get new friends, people who post about the news he wants to read.

And when these new friends post about those things, he then needs to make sure he likes and shares them—so that Facebook knows to give him more of the same.

And what does this mean for non-profits? It means that if our supporters don’t like or share our stories, they may go nowhere.

Just being current or topical, making sure we include photos or videos, or even paying to promote our posts, won’t be enough if nobody interacts with them.

On the one hand, this is a good thing if it spurs groups to create more informative and engaging posts.

On the other hand, since not everything we do is entertaining or uplifting—poverty, droughts, hurricanes, floods, wars and other disasters rarely are—it can be hard to get those important likes. (Although how people respond to these tragic experiences can be very inspiring.)

One thing this could mean is a change in the way groups view engagement.

Traditionally, it has meant going deeper into issues and participating in thoughtful actions.

Now, with Facebook being such an important channel for information, it could mean simply getting people to like our posts so that more people can see them.

Whatever we do, it’s an uphill battle.

As Warzel put it, the users of Facebook have voted—and they voted against news.

For more on the topic of why we get the news we do, see Whe it Comes to Media Coverage of Drowned Refugees or Dead Gorillas, and We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us on this blog.

Image from The Telegraph.

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