All hail the incredible & influential Facebook news feed

I have talked before about the news feed being one of the main differentiators between Twitter and Facebook and how, as a user, I preferred Twitter’s straightforward approach: show me everything. Yes, Twitter can get overwhelming at times and I don’t pretend to keep up with everything, but I enjoy having the capability to decide for myself what I want to see.

Facebook, on the other hand, has complete control over what I see in my feed and in the past few months I’ve been visiting it maybe once a week because I have found that I don’t see updates from the people I care about. Whether by Facebook’s choice or because of bad “like” decisions I have made in the past, I no longer see posts from people who are not quite close friends but also not distant acquaintances. As a user, I am not happy and I use Facebook less.

Is the Facebook "voter megaphone" the digital equivalent of the sticker?

Facebook’s voter megaphone, the digital equivalent of the sticker.

Yet last week two very interesting articles about the news feed caught my eye.

The first was about how Facebook is trying to appeal to news organizations to trust the news feed as a portal to their content. Many companies admit that Facebook is the “the No. 1 source of traffic for many digital publishers. Yes, search from Google still creates inbound interest, and Twitter can spark attention, especially among media types, but when it comes to sheer tonnage of eyeballs, nothing rivals Facebook.” That said, those same media companies are also wary of Facebook knowing that it can turn off the traffic just as easily as it has turned it on. As one anonymous source said “all any of us are talking about is when the other shoe might drop.” Most cite the “Social Reader” product from several years ago as an example of a good source of traffic initially but one that died down once consumers voiced their objection and Facebook tweaked the algorithm.

The second article talked about how Facebook boosted voter turnout in the 2010 elections by making it easy for users to share that they were voting. First, Facebook added a “I’m voting” button on election day and, once a user clicked, shared that information with in their friends’ news feed. The result was an increase in the number of people who said they voted. “After the election, the study’s authors examined voter records and concluded that Facebook’s nudging had increased voter turnout by at least 340,000. As the study noted, that’s about 0.14 percent of the total voting-age population in 2010. Considering that overall turnout rose from 37.2 percent in 2006 to 37.8 percent in 2010—both off-year, non presidential elections—the Facebook scientists maintained that the voter megaphone impact in 2010 was substantial.”

Another experiment Facebook conducted, in 2012, was what story to place at the top of a user’s news feed. Usually, Facebook places a personal update from friends at the top but in this experiment it presented a news story that a friend had recently shared. This intervention, incredibly, ended up boosting voter turnout by 3 percent.

What these stories prove is that there is an incredible amount of value to be created when “tweaking” the news feed. I think this is based on two features. First, the location in the news feed ensures the user’s complete attention. The closer the update is to the top of the feed, the more significance it has. Second, these updates are presented as an action taken by a friend, not by Facebook, or an advertiser, or a media company. Therefore, they are seen as having the friend’s endorsement. Both of these provide a very compelling reason for the user to interact.

It’s a bit daunting to think that Facebook could achieve such incredible engagement with a large enough number of users to make a tangible impact in an election. Who’s to say that this kind of manipulation will always be inline with the general welfare of the public? What happens when a Proposition is on the ballot that is extremely friendly to tech companies (say, lower taxes and higher number of H1-B visas) and Facebook chooses to show you only updates from friends who voted for it? The sense will be that since all your friends voted for it, it must be a good thing, right?

I wonder if this tweaking can also be used to boost sales. Let’s say Facebook chooses to show a user every friend who has purchased an iPad and taken a photo of their children smiling while using it. What happens when a user sees 20 such photos in a day in the period leading up to Christmas? Will that have an influence of what they buy their child?

The news feed manipulation is the social media version of peer pressure and it will be interesting, yet scary, to see what Facebook will do with it.

Facebook, November 4th, Election Day 2014.

Facebook, November 4th, Election Day 2014.

 

Edit, November 4th: Facebook did indeed add the voter megaphone box on top of my feed, telling me that my friend Nancy Bain and over 3.7 million people have already voted at 10am in the morning!

Note how ironically the voter megaphone is right above a friend’s share of this post. 

 

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