Users Choose to Wear Blinders, Facebook Suggests

Facebook, in collaboration with the University of Michigan, conducted a study on the diversity of news and opinions posted by members of the network, in an effort to determine whether its manipulation of News Feed algorithms could be responsible for creating an echo chamber of viewpoints. Results were published Thursday in the journal Science.

To cut to the chase, the researchers concluded that users themselves are to blame if all they’re exposed to is preaching to the choir.

Facebook’s fiddling with filters also plays a role, the company acknowledged — but its influence was “less consequential.”

It’s unclear how great the difference is between the two. Also, the study doesn’t take into account algorithm changes made since the research was conducted, which was during the six months between July 2014 and January 2015.

Consider the most recent alterations to its News Feed algorithms, for example.

In an effort to keep eyes locked in on News Feed content, Facebook recently made three major changes to the News Feed — claiming it was responding to user feedback, submitted organically and drummed up through Facebook’s requests for News Feed ratings.

Designed to bring more content to users who weren’t seeing enough to keep them engaged, the update gave even higher priority to a users’ favorite friends and buried the things people generally don’t care to see, according to Facebook.

For the people and pages a users regularly follows, the update resulted in posts being published higher up in the feed. Content such as posts showing that their friends recently commented on something was curtailed and submerged lower in News Feeds.

Cultivating Power Users

For users who already had plenty to click on in their News Feeds, that algorithm tweak potentially distilled the content they would come across in order to keep them tuned into Facebook.

For users who didn’t have a large enough social network to keep the News Feed moving smoothly, Facebook relaxed its rules on displaying content from the same sources consecutively.

“Making the News Feed more relevant and populated — in personal feeds that are today a bit thin — will hopefully give the less-than-committed more reason to stay engaged,” said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, research director of Social Business Applications at 451 Research.

Facebook’s demographics have been skewed largely toward users 25 year of age and older, he noted, citing 451 Research data. Those under 25, especially teens, are generalized as having short attention spans, so the Facebook experience has to be dynamic enough to appeal to them.

“I’m not sure this will fix that, frankly, as social media choices are as much trend-driven as they are by tech and content, but the logic at least is good,” Pelz-Sharp told the E-Commerce Times.

What It Means for Business

It’s unclear just how big an impact those changes might have on organizations that use Facebook. A move that hurts businesses traffic on the site also has the potential to do the same to Facebook, according to Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media.

“There are a lot of folks, myself included, who work really hard to optimize content for social channels,” Tobin told the E-Commerce Times. “Over time, that has some unintended impacts — so like Google adjusts that algorithm, Facebook adjusts theirs. At the end of day, if users check Facebook less, that will cost Facebook dearly.”

The latest changes certainly weren’t the first Facebook has made to the News Feed, Tobin pointed out, and likely won’t be the last.

The previous News Feed algorithm was especially beneficial to publishers, who have been continuing to improve their abilities to leverage the social networking site, he observed.

“Many publishers’ mobile experiences are terrible, so reading those articles on the phone — as more than half are — is not a good experience either,” Tobin said. “Not Facebook’s fault, but they can do something about it.”

Brands have been kept in check with previous changes to the News Feed, and publishers may be next, he said. For now, however, it’s a waiting game to see just how big an impact the News Feed changes will have on publishers.

Quinten Plummer is a longtime technology reporter and an avid PC gamer who explored local news for a few years, covering law enforcement and government beats, before returning to writing about things run by ones and zeros and the people who make them. If it pushes pixels or improves lives, he wants to learn all he can about it.

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