Vende Buzz: Facebook newsfeed: “friends and family first” to save face?

by Ray Larson
  |  June 29, 2016  |  
June 29, 2016

You probably know that Facebook has been in a little hot water lately. A few months back, a former Facebook employee who “wished to remain anonymous”, accused the social media giant of squashing conservative news stories, via the Facebook newsfeed,while boosting left-leaning news stories. It is no secret where Mark Zuckerberg and most of the Facebook employees stand on the political spectrum and the newsfeed filters essentially amounted to censoring. Only one side (the conservative right) had noticed since the other side (the liberal left) was getting the news they wanted…but the anonymous source spilled the beans.

Facebook really denied the whole thing, saying that it was an unbiased computer algorithm….but the same source revealed that human supervisors could override the algorithm – kind of blowing that excuse. Facebook subsequently made a big show of meeting with several hand-picked, conservative media personalities to reassure them that it wasn’t happening…. but since then, the “trending” news has notably changed and has been featuring more stories from “conservative media” – sort of proving that it was happening.

Throttling based upon political bias?

Facebook is not the only platform facing similar scrutiny. Google has been accused of removing unpleasant keyword strings from search suggestions…and Twitter has been accused of multiple offenses (really, the list is just too long but Twitter isn’t as “important” so…). All three of the company’s leadership teams (throw Microsoft and Apple in the same basket) have similar political views.

The big problem is that like Google, Facebook wants to be everything internet – including the news…and like Google, their political and social views are well-known…and like Google, they have tremendous reach. The ability to control the news gives them tremendous power to influence millions of people. Traditionally, the news has been controlled by news outlets who supposedly kept to the virtues of Edward R. Murrow…but Facebook’s leaders aren’t journalists constrained by Murrow’s ethics. Frankly, most of them don’t know who Murrow was…maybe not even Cronkite.

Everyone who has any experience with Google knows that Google is a mystery…and frankly, Facebook is no better. Even those who thought they understood were probably wrong. Still a mystery.

Changing the newsfeed to save face?

Facebook has just announced yet another change to the newsfeed…and something that may solve at least part of the mystery. We say “yet another change” because Facebook is constantly changing. Most of the time, such announcements are easily missed, until they irritate users – who eventually get over it. Previous announcements certainly haven’t ever cleared up any confusion but we can hope this one is different.

Facebook has said that the primary value was always “friends and family come first” – which is ironic since all of their recent growth initiatives have been geared at taking over the internet rather than serving the users. They have driven hard into native news and native videos, search, local business, shopping and even virtual assistance. Naturally, they claim that this was all to serve the user…but remember – they are a big, gigantic corporation with shareholders. Meaning that it is all really about money – ad money. The more time spent on Facebook, the more they know about the user and the more often their ads are seen – which makes those ads more valuable.

Now, Facebook says that they have refocused the Newsfeed to give preference to family and friends, while listing posts from “pages” and news from media sites, lower on the newsfeed…and then, shockingly, they gave a rundown on how they will decide which posts come first in a user’s newsfeed.

They are actually publishing (yes, publishing) the formula to their algorithm in a document called “News Feed Values”.   The formula shows how Facebook determines what shows up in a user’s newsfeed – previously undisclosed information…maybe even a trade secret.

How the newsfeed now works…

The algorithm works kind of like this – how high a post appears in the newsfeed is determined by a complicated formula which involves…

  • Interest of the user in previous posts by that person
  • The specific post’s performance amongst other users
  • How well other posts of that person have performed
  • Whether the format (image, link, status update) is one the user likes
  • How recent the post is

Basically, your sister’s 150th post of her 2-month old puppy will probably rank high on your newsfeed because you have “liked or commented” on her previous pictures…and her other friends have felt obligated to comment as well.   On the other hand, a high school acquaintance who is rarely on Facebook will rank much lower as you don’t have much previous interaction with him, nor does he have much interaction with other people while not on Facebook.

For Facebook, determining the right mix is challenging and becomes more so every day. Though the first value was originally “friends and family first”, their need to consume more of the user’s time has recently led them to bring more avenues of engagement – informing and entertaining – meaning more news stories, more videos, more business. Space is at a premium and competition is fierce.

Facebook was so engrossed in publishing and were probably delighted that they had surpassed Google in amount of referral traffic delivered to publishers…Google was no longer “king”. Apparently though, they realized the folly of that microscopic view…they forgot the user. Facebook says they have determined that friends and family were losing out.

Facebook’s new announcement says that they are returning to the “friends and family first”, essentially telling publishers and businesses that they are second fiddle. Though many of the publishers may lose traffic, the publishers need Facebook way more than Facebook needs a particular publisher. After all, Facebook and Google are pretty much the only game in town.

By going back to “friends and family first”, Facebook appears to be trying really hard to rectify the censorship thing. Altruistically, they have stated that they are “not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about”. In reality, they got ripped by the actual media.

Basically, aside from the huge, public shaming that came after the shameful suppression story…Facebook needed to save face. Their political views may be shared by many…but an equal number don’t share them and an even greater number don’t appreciate censorship in any form. They may also have been actually a little (or a lot) concerned about losing active users.

Following the money…less user activity = less money.

The news is huge at TechCrunch.

What’s the point?

Pretty simple for a change. Facebook has publicly announced that business is secondary to family and friends. This includes big publishers…but it includes micro-publishers too. That’s your business page.

Your business page will have to work harder to rank on a follower’s newsfeed. Your posts will have to be more interesting and elicit some kind of reaction. If users don’t engage with you, they won’t even see you.

This means “more is not always more”.

You may think that more followers, more posts and more likes are all better and have probably been treating them as independent factors. After all, it makes you feel good when you get more followers and more likes – and you feel accomplished when you post more frequently.

While those rules used to work, the algorithm now goes for quality over quantity. More likes or comments are good – but don’t really count if you have too many “dead” followers. They also don’t count much if you have a lot of posts that don’t elicit interaction.

It is better to post two updates which get 10 interactions from your minuscule 100 followers than it is to post 100 updates to your whopping 10,000 followers – if you only get 100 interactions. In fact, more followers and more posts can actually be penalizing if you don’t get enough likes or comments.

You need followers who actually interact with you and high-quality posts that elicit more engagement. Images, information, entertainment are essential – but don’t be afraid to encourage interaction right on the post.   “Let us know”, “tell us about”, “what do you think”…are good starters.

Quality over quantity.

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