After a spate of complaints and controversy surrounding Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm and complaints that it wasn’t showing all sponsored content, the company sat down with reporters at its headquarters Friday in Menlo Park to explain why the newsfeed looks like it does, and how people can keep their content flowing. Mainly, Facebook engineers said they want to make the newsfeed full of things you’re interested in (so you’ll keep clicking and engaging) and cut down on posts that seem spammy (since that irritates users and drives them away from Facebook).
The motivations themselves weren’t surprising, but the degree to which the Facebook representatives outlined and explained their motivations in creating the newsfeed was interesting. Will Cathcart, a Facebook product manager for newsfeed, said the algorithm relies on three things when deciding how high to rank a post by a particular publisher: How a user has reacted to that publisher in the past, how other people on Facebook have reacted to the publisher’s story so far, and how the user has reacted to similar types of stories in the past. (Cathcart used the Facebook user Yoda as an example, reacting to a relationship story that Darth Vadar had listed Luke as his son on the network.)
“We make changes to the algorithim all the time, at least weekly,” Cathcart said. “We work all the time to say, ‘Can we better predict what people are looking at? Can we better predict what people won’ want to see or are less likely to interact with?’”
The company works to make each person’s newsfeed as reflective of that person’s interests as possible, Cathcart said, meaning no two users’ newsfeeds will look the same. He said they even try to make the mobile and desktop newsfeeds particular to the platforms, not showing games on mobile that only work on desktop, for example.
Cathcart confirmed that the company has started to respond to posts that cause negative reactions, beginning in September by trying to gauge how likely it is that users will mark to hide or spam a particular item. In other words, if your post seems spammy or unpleasant to users, it might show up less, even if you pay to promote it in the feed.
And this fits with Facebook’s overall goal, as my colleague Mathew Ingram wrote, which is not to serve as charitable organization to spread information, but to respond to customers — both the users who pay to advertise in the feed, and the consumers who dictate whether that information is consumed.
In response to this criticism, Facebook explained — both in a post by one of its engineers and in comments to TechCrunch and Ars Technica — that the newsfeed filtering was designed to eliminate spam and noise, and that it was constantly being tweaked in order to show users things they were actually interested in, not just things that brands wanted them to see. The message seemed pretty obvious: don’t be spammy with your posts and lots of your users will still see them for free. And if you want to spam them anyway, you will have to pay for sponsored posts in order to do that.