Jason Smith

I'm Jason. This is my home on the web where I write. Stick around. It's going to get interesting. 

The eternal hypocrisy of tech douchebags specifically relating to Facebook's newsfeed algorithm

Another day, another tech blog post somewhere complaining over the evils of Facebook's mysterious algorithm that determines what you see in your news feed. 

To be honest, I think rather highly of John Gruber, the author of Daring Fireball. 

His comments on the above-linked-to post are merely more of many hundreds I have read over the last few years of Twitter fans complaining that evil Facebook messes with your news feed. 

But let's break it down for a second here. 

What people are complaining about is that Facebook doesn't present to you a chronological ordering of posts from people and organisations you have liked or befriended.

These people invariably love and use RSS and Twitter heavily, two services which DO in fact give you a the much praised chronological feed. 

Here's a couple of things I would like to point out to the whingers and whiners who need to stay over on Twitter.... 

One... no-one uses Twitter. Your mum doesn't use Twitter. Your 13 year old kid doesn't use Twitter. The only people on Twitter are the tech savvy, the journos, comedians, and famous people. And a good 70% + of the people I ever speak with that actually use Twitter admit they never post anything, they just read stuff. 

Seeing I only have one friend on Twitter, I too mostly use it just to follow famous and interesting people I know. It's not a social network, it's a broadcast network. And that's fine. It's awesome at being that. 

RSS is also a broadcasting tool. Not social in the slightest, but a great way of following blogs and news sites of interest. 

BUT, that's not how the real world works. In the real world, millions of conversations are happening all the time. Lots of news worthy events are happening all the time. Your own friends are engaged in hundreds of conversations at any given moment, some public, some private. 

And people in your life fall in to different categories. We don't have names for these categories, other than maybe friend and good friend. But the truth is we have some friends that we love knowing what is happening to day by day, and we have other friends whose children's names we don't even recall... but we might like to know if they become engaged or crash their car. 

It's the same with businesses and news services. We might like some of the more popular items the ABC publish, but we might not really care about every flamin' thing that happens in our country. 

An orderly, chronological feed on Facebook of every item every friend posts would have one of two outcomes...

1. We would unfriend 90% of our network thus collapsing the entire value of the "social" aspect of the giant network and making people loathe to like another page or add another friend. 

2. We would stop opening the app because we know when we do we will be hit with a bunch of crap we don't want to see. The end. 

Number 2 is why most NORMAL people don't bother with Twitter. They gave it a go, followed a bunch of friends, family, famous people, some news services, and maybe a comedian or two. Following 300 people means every time they refresh the feed another 18 posts, mostly with links, appear. Screw that. They're hit with the feeling of not being able to keep up. They could unfollow their friends and risk them finding out, or they could just go back to happy Facebook land and for some reason unbeknownst to them see content that is more appealing. Guess which option requires less effort.

I personally still love Twitter, but I cannot follow any more than 100 people or I am just drowned by the volume of content. I can't even keep up as it is. Good luck if you're joining Twitter now and hoping to get a bunch of followers. People used to follow anyone that looked interesting, now we hand out "follows" like they were the rights to our first born child's soul. 

So back to Facebook's "algorithm".

Why is Facebook persecuted for arbitrarily deciding what you see in your "news feed", and for keeping their formula a secret? The same people complaining about this never seem to have a problem with the New York Times or The Australian exercising even greater discrimination over what content appears in their pages. Do these newspapers publicise the formula they use for deciding which letters to the editor to publish? Not they would even have one. Do they ask the reader to decide what should go on the front page, and what should be buried on page 32? Do they offer an edition of the newspaper that simply lists the week's events in chronological order all in the same font size so you can be sure you didn't miss anything and no extra emphasis was added to one story over another?

No, of course not. 

Because that's not what we want. 

We want the, admittedly subjective at times, important stuff at the top, and if we get to the other stuff we get to it, but if not... no stress. 

And that's what Facebook provides. 

Here's a Facebook scenario:

Susan rolls their car and posts a picture on Facebook saying they're ok.  

Facebook shows it to 7 people to see what sort of a reaction this post will get. All of them click on the image. 6 of them like the picture. 4 comment. Two of them tag a friend in the comments. 

Facebook's naughty little algorithm says "this is popular" and makes sure all of Susan's friends see that post at least once at the top of their feeds over the next 6 days, except for Bob who has asked Facebook to never show any of Susan's posts.

John, Susan's cousin, isn't a big tech user, but checks Facebook every week or so. He saw the post and gave her a phone call. 

Here's the same Twitter scenario. 

Susan rolls their car and posts a picture on Twitter saying they're ok.  All of her friends who logged in to Twitter in the following 4 hours saw her post. Despite the large amount of "stars" it received anyone who went to Twitter later never got far enough down their feed to see her post.

John logged on to Twitter two days later and never saw the post. 

Ok, so it's great that FB sort the posts... but the formula is SECRET! Secrets are BAD!


Trust me, you do NOT want Facebook's (or Google's for that matter) formula's made public. In the never ending war against spam etc the last thing any user should want is their algorithm controlled service to have it's formulae made public. If everyone knew exactly what posts got ranked higher... we might as well just go back to Twitter. 

I'm not saying Facebook is better than Twitter, or any other online service. And they could of course use their algorithm for nefarious purposes... again. 

But you wouldn't read a newspaper that didn't discriminate content, so why stress so much when Facebook does it.

Facebook should NOT try to be Twitter, or RSS. If that's what people want, then that's what they will use. 

Oh, and by the way, if you want to follow twitter style certain pages and people on Facebook you actually CAN do that by asking to be notified whenever they post. There are about 4 who I have this setting turned on for. For the rest of it, just show me the good stuff Facebook. 

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