This article first appeared on The Daily Beast.
How does the social media giant decide who and what to put in your feed? Cracking the Facebook Code.
The more digital our daily lives become, the more perplexing the questions seem. Will the growth of social media destroy our notions of privacy? Is democracy helped or harmed by the cacophony of opinions online? And perhaps most confounding: Why does that guy I barely know from the 10th grade keep showing up in my Facebook feed?
If you’ve ever spent time on Facebook, you’ve probably pondered that last one. The social-networking giant promises to keep us connected with our friends in exchange for pumping a steady diet of advertising at us—but the algorithms Facebook uses to decide what news to pass along can seem capricious or altogether impenetrable.
The Daily Beast’s one-month experiment into Facebook’s news feed yielded the following discoveries:
- A bias against newcomers
- “Most Recent” doesn’t tell the whole story.
- Links are favored over status updates, and photos and videos trump links.
- “Stalking” your friends won’t get you noticed.
- Raise your visibility by getting people to comment.
- It’s hard to get the attention of “popular kids.”
Facebook, much like Google with its search algorithms, consistently refuses to go into details about how it picks and pans content (save a few glancing details this year about the enigmatic engine that powers it, EdgeRank). So, with the mystery of that 10th-grade friend in mind, The Daily Beast set out to crack the code of Facebook’s personalized news feed. Why do some friends seem to pop up constantly, while others are seldom seen? How much do the clicks of other friends in your network affect what you’re shown? Does Facebook reward some activities with undue exposure? And can you “stalk” your way into a friend’s news feed by obsessively viewing their page and photos?
To get the answers, we devised an experiment, creating our own virtual test lab within the confines of Facebook and tracking thousands of news-feed items over a period of several weeks. The focal point of our experiment: Phil Simonetti, a 60-year-old Facebook newcomer who allowed us to dictate and monitor his every move.
Like a half-billion people before him, Simonetti joined Facebook and began typing in his status updates. But in this case, Simonetti’s only friends were a hand-picked roster of more than two dozen volunteers who agreed to sift through their news feeds for the duration of our experiment, dutifully recording any Phil sightings.
As our volunteers checked in with their reports, some remarkable findings began to emerge:
1. Facebook’s Bias Against Newcomers. If there’s one thing our experiment made all too clear, it’s that following 500 million people into a party means that a lot of the beer and pretzels are already long gone. Poor Phil spent his first week shouting his updates, posted several times a day, yet most of his ready-made “friends” never noticed a peep on their news feeds. His invisibility was especially acute among those with lengthy, well-established lists of friends. Phil’s perpetual conversation with the ether only stopped when we instructed our volunteers to interact with him. A dynamic which leads to…