I’ve written previously about how Facebook and Twitter, seemingly similar, are two very different products. This difference has never been as noticeable as during this week, with Twitter breaking news out of Ferguson every evening and Facebook showing us videos of people dumping ice water on their heads (for a good cause!)
A Washington Post article from this morning offered further explanations about how the product differences lead to completely different news feeds. The first product difference noted in the Post is the 140 character limit on Twitter which promotes brevity and is well-suited for breaking news. I also think that Twitter also makes it extremely easy to reshare that news in other users’ updates which helps important news travel fast.
But it is the second product difference, the news feed algorithm, that the Post thinks really makes a difference. Twitter shows you every update from everyone you follow in real time but Facebook has a secret algorithm.
I’ve talked about the news feed algorithm before and how it really differentiates between Twitter and Facebook but the Post has shed some light on why: Facebook has said that “it ranks the content based in part on what you’ve liked, clicked or shared in the past.” According to the Post, what is happening today is that sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy are optimizing their ability to create content that will be liked and shared on Facebook and since users tend to like them more often (and I mean “like” in the Facebook way) they will show up in other feeds more often. That leads to more “nice” and non-controversial content showing up in news feed than breaking news, which is usually more controversial. In the end “content that creates accord and harmony is what keeps people coming back.”
What I found extremely interesting was a study quoted in the article that discussed the dynamics of Facebook relationships and how expectations from these ties influenced the newsfeed as well. “The study found that, because Facebook friend networks are often composed of ‘weak ties’ where the threshold for friending someone is low, users were often negatively surprised to see their acquaintances express political opinions different from their own. This felt alienating and, overall, made everyone less likely to speak up on political matters (and therefore, create content for Facebook).”
So on Facebook “friends” are still perceived as, well, friends, and with friendship comes the expectation of shared opinions. Even though the same “weak-ties” that are described above hold true for the Twitter follower relationships (perhaps even more so as Twitter relationships were set up from the get-go to be one-sided and thus have a very low threshold to creating) it is the perception of these ties that creates the different expectation of content in one’s feed and the increased tolerance to difference options.
Finally, it’s not that Twitter is a friendly place full of tolerance and acceptance. But it is definitely a place where different options can be heard, all in one feed.
And this week, that difference has made a real impact.