Facebook introduced the News Feed in 2006 as a way to make the social network more …social. But what sort of society are they creating? I'm wondering how Facebook decides what to feature for each specific person in their News Feed. Are there trends in the algorithm that will make a certain person more likely to show up on my News Feed, such as whether someone likes my status update or views my profile, or how many posts they (or I) make, or how "close" we are as friends?
And does that influence their advertisements? For example, I'm a young female, and I think Facebook strongly suspects I'm pregnant and/or baby-crazy. It seems a disproportionate amount of the posts on my News Feed are about my friends who are pregnant or have small children. I realize this could be my sensitivity to the topic or my demographic, but out of 400+ "friends," only about 25 or so fit this criterion. Then I see the advertisements for diapers and for classes to learn how to be an ultrasound technician. Did this happen because I "liked" X amount of baby pictures?
In the five minutes I spend on Facebook each day, are my views and likes effectively pigeonholing me? And through the News Feed, are my views and likes encouraging contact with some friends, and discouraging contact with others? In what ways?
Just Another Face in the Book
Dear Just Another Face in the Book,
Finally, someone has found a use for advanced algebra, and of course, it's Mark Zuckerberg, the man we both fear and respect for making our friendships closer, but our neighbors farther. I know we all have trepidation over Facebook's insight into our lives, and how much they really know about their 500 million users. Here are the thoughts of two experts:
The collection of algorithms that allow you to see relevant content in your Facebook News Feed is called EdgeRank, says Eric Fischgrund, the digital media manager at the PR firm Beckerman. EdgeRank is a formula developed by Facebook specifically for News Feed content. It is a set of computer rules that only applies to the "Top News" tab, and not the "Most Recent" tab (the Most Recent tab shows everyone's status updates in chronological order). However, Top News content is determined by three main factors:
Each factor assigns a certain value or number to every Facebook post, and the combined value is referred to as the post's Edge or EdgeRank. The higher the Edge, the more visible the content.
Affinity refers to how often you interact with the post creator or brand, Fischgrund says. For example, if one of your Facebook friends puts up a status, Facebook will consider things like how many friends you have in common, how often you interact, etc. If you write on your friend's wall everyday, then your affinity with that person is higher. And the higher your affinity, the more updates you'll see by that person.
The weight of a status is determined by its content and how many people interact with it. A status that includes photos, videos or links will "weigh" more than a text-only status. Fischgrund says this implies Facebook is encouraging the dissemination of more "important" information that affects wider audiences, like a trending news story or a viral video, rather than, say, a friend sharing personal details about their life (because, let's be real, no one actually cares about what you ate for breakfast). Furthermore, the more comments and "likes" a status gets, the more visible it will be. (There is no way to know for sure which "weighs" more, "likes" or comments, because Facebook does keep some tricks up its sleeve.)
Lastly, Fischgrund explains that relevancy is based on the timeliness of the post. When a status is first posted, it has a higher Edge than it would after a week. Additionally, Facebook picks up on time-sensitive keywords or phrases in statuses, like "today" or "limited-time only," which also boost a status' relevancy.
"Facebook learns about you as you use it, like Google search engines. If you never interact with a page, then Facebook probably won't have it interact with you," says Dan Grody, partner at Tellem Worldwide, a PR agency that specializes in social media (among other things); and head of youth marketing, entertainment and digital projects.
But why does Facebook use EdgeRank to rate status updates? Fischgrund says it's advantageous for Facebook to make the site as user-friendly as possible, because the more members it has, the more it can charge advertisers. Facebook uses the information in your profile, like pages you've "liked," your interests, your location and more, to advertise to your demographic(s).
Grody concurs, and points to MySpace's failure in this regard as an example of why Facebook's EdgeRank system is so essential to its success. "On MySpace," he explains, "any people or brands could carelessly post on and spam one's profile without any warning." MySpace eventually introduced an approval process, Grody says, where comments from another user had to be approved via email before they showed up on someone's profile, but even then users still had to sift through messages to separate the real comments from the spam.
"Facebook is effectively eliminating these kinds of things from happening on our walls, and in the process, is preventing the online abuse of your profile via spam and unwanted messages -- the same things that caused MySpace to tank out of relevance," Grody concludes.
By publishing things that are relevant to us, Facebook increases its chances that we'll continue using it to interact and share information -- the key to Facebook's success, both socially and financially. (Now if only we could get our public officials to respond to our "likes" as well as Facebook does…)
Until next week,
P.S. Check out this awesome video (suggested by @commeton) from the March TED conference about the Facebook News Feed "filter bubble," a phenomenon that's occurring when people are only exposed to certain ideas or people with similar interests as a result of social media targeting.