And other News Feed algorithm queries
By Sophie Isbister, Life & Style Editor
When you use Facebook as much as a procrastinator during exam period, it can start to seem like you only see the most vocal (read: obnoxious) people on your friends list. Over and over again. It led me to wonder, how does Facebook decide what you see? Is it all random? Is it wizards? As it turns out, those brilliant geeks down in Silicon Valley use algorithms.
Facebook has a lot of activity data to contend with. Every click, like, share, and post action represents a piece of data that needs to know how and when to display itself on the News Feeds of your friends. Facebook says that “every time someone visits News Feed there are on average 1,500 potential stories from friends, people they follow, and Pages.” Everything from Advice Animal memes to Denny’s check-ins; your friends and frenemies are doing a ton of stuff, and Facebook needs a complicated algorithm to determine how best to display this content to you.
They used to use an algorithm called EdgeRank, which determined visibility through three factors: Affinity, Weight, and Time Decay. EdgeRank received a lot of criticism. It was rolled out along with Pages, and seemed geared towards corporations. Its algorithm encouraged corporate Pages to resort to obnoxious spamming to improve their rank. EdgeRank applied to personal accounts as well, so if nobody interacted with your post in a timely fashion, it could get lost in the Facebook ether. Overall engagement with posts fell.
Their new algorithm system is a lot more complicated, robust, and attuned to the way people actually use social media. Facebook now ranks News Feed posts based on how often you interact with the user or Page, and what kinds of updates you usually interact with. It responds to user feedback, like hiding posts or classifying friends as “close friends” or “acquaintances.” When you hide a post, you can select from several reasons why, such as “Posts from this person don’t interest me”—how’s that for honesty! New features to News Feed also push older posts up to the top if they are still attracting new comments. Facebook says that the changes they made in summer 2013 have caused people to now read 70 per cent of their News Feed on average, up from 57 per cent, thanks to this resurfacing of old stories.
Sounds good, right? But now I have this weird, paranoid fear that the algorithm is working the wrong way; I fear that when I stop to read a status that annoys me, Facebook’s all-knowing Illuminati forces can sense that extra second I spend glaring at it, and then mistake that mini hate-stroke for wild interest. Thanks to all my rage-browsing, it seems I only ever see people who annoy me on Facebook. Either I’m too easily annoyed (likely), or I should start doing something to fix my News Feed user experience.
So what’s a misanthropic curmudgeon to do? There are a couple options, barring a total egress from social media (as if!). You can install a free browser extension called Social Fixer. I’ve been using this totally legit app for a while to test it out; honestly, I find it kind of clunky, but it has a lot of benefits. For one, it keeps your News Feed set to Most Recent, instead of the default Top Stories. It also retools your chat window to show you everyone who’s online, not just the people Facebook thinks you should talk to. And it allows you to filter your News Feed by keyword, author, or app—perfect for anyone who hates hockey or Olympics coverage.
The second option, and my favourite, is to take more control over what I see on Facebook. Instead of simply glaring at a post I don’t like, I will take the extra minute to make sure it is out of my News Feed for good. I will hide everything, and provide snarky reasons why, until there is nothing left to see but my own posts. And then everything will be perfect.
Or maybe I should just go outside!