Remember, Facebook isn’t a platform for you to use — you are a platform for Facebook to use

Stormtrooper Facebook

Facebook seems to be making users upset and/or confused again with the way it handles its news feed. A few months ago, it was actor George Takei and billionaire Mark Cuban who were upset with what they saw as changes to the Facebook algorithm that made their content less visible, and this time around it’s New York Times writer Nick Bilton, who complained that his posts haven’t been getting as many likes or shares as they used to. The assumption is that Facebook wants you to pay to get this kind of reach, but regardless of whether that’s what is happening, it still sends a valuable message: you are not in control — Facebook is.

Bilton described in a piece for the Bits section of the Times how his posts used to get as many as 50 or even a hundred likes and shares, from users of Facebook who had signed up to get his feed using the network’s relatively new Subscribe feature. But even though the number of users who subscribe has soared from just 25,000 after the feature was launched to almost half a million now, Bilton said that he gets far fewer responses to his posts — sometimes as little as 10 or 15 likes and shares. After paying Facebook to promote his posts, however, that number increased by almost 1,000 percent.

Facebook denies it is tuning users out

I’ve noticed the same kind of phenomenon as Bilton has with my own feed, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. While Bilton has almost half a million subscribers, I have about 75,000 — but I’ve also found that the content I post is getting a lot less interaction than in the early days of the feature. I haven’t experimented with paying Facebook to promote my posts, but I have no doubt I would see the same kind of increase in activity if I did. That’s kind of the whole point (Facebook is holding a news event on March 7 that could include more changes to the news feed).

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The conclusion that everyone seems to be jumping to is the same one that Mark Cuban arrived at when he complained in November about the increasing difficulty of reaching his fans on the network: namely, that Facebook is deliberately tuning out (or at least turning down) the signal coming from some users so that it can convince them to use promotional tools like ads and “sponsored stories.” Cuban said he was so irritated by the move that he was diverting almost all of the marketing budget from his various brands away from Facebook to Twitter and other platforms.

Facebook gave much the same response then that it has made to Bilton’s column (as reported by my GigaOM colleague Eliza Kern): it said that it tweaks its ranking algorithms all the time, in order to try and decrease spam and increase the visibility of content that users like, and that this is not an attempt to market its other services such as advertising or various promotional features. An official post on the Facebook site entitled “Fact Check” says:

“Our goal with News Feed is always to show each individual the most relevant blend of stories that maximizes engagement and interest. There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue. This is not true.”

Like Google, Facebook is a black box

It’s worth noting that former YouTube executive-turned-venture-capitalist Hunter Walk came up with some alternate theories about why Bilton and others might have seen a dropoff in their likes and shares, including the fact that some of the followers and subscribers that boosted those numbers were spam accounts or bots who have lost interest. I certainly noticed after the “Subscribe” feature launched that I got a lot of spammy responses as well as likes and shares, and those have died down as well. In that sense, decreasing the amount of activity would actually qualify as a good thing.

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Zach Seward of Quartz had another theory that I also think has a lot of merit: in a comment on Walk’s post, he noted that Facebook often devotes a substantial amount of energy to promoting its new features — such as the subscription offering, as well as the “social newsreader” offerings that were launched by a number of newspapers such as The Guardian and the Washington Post. But after a certain time, the network almost always tweaks the ranking algorithm so that these new features are downplayed relative to when they were launched, which often causes problems for those who relied on them.

The bottom line, of course, is that there is no real way for anyone to know why Facebook’s algorithm behaves the way it does, any more than it’s possible for us to know why certain pages rank high in Google. They are both a black box, and the way they function is a mystery. As I tried to point out to Cuban, Facebook is entitled to do whatever it wants with your news feed, including using it to convince you to pay for promotional tools, because it owns your news feed — not you. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Fickr user balakov and Flickr user Pew Center

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