New York Times writer Nick Bilton’s complaints this week about how little engagement his content gets on Facebook sparked a debate about whether the network is deliberately hiding certain types of content in order to promote its paid-reach services — but it also highlighted how much Facebook controls the feed users see, often in ways that they don’t understand or may not even be aware of.
Facebook is going to be launching some new features for its feed on Thursday, which may include new ways of filtering specific kinds of content and possibly new advertising features. Meanwhile, Twitter continues to show you everything, without filtering or ranking it in any way. Which method is better? That depends on how and why you are using it.
Much of Bilton’s criticism revolves around what some call the “subscribe” function, which allows users to get updates from others without having to ask their permission. When it launched in the fall of 2011, it was widely seen as an attempt to copy Twitter’s “asymmetric following” model, since Twitter lets users get updates from whoever they wish — whereas Facebook’s model has always been symmetric, in the sense that users must agree to be friends before they can see each other’s updates. Late last year, Facebook changed the name of this feature to “follow,” which made the similarity to Twitter even more obvious.
Do you want to see everything in your feed?
As an attempt to copy Twitter, the follow feature seems to be largely a failure — at least if the experiences of Bilton and others who have complained about Facebook’s newsfeed, such as billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, are anything to go by. They say they don’t get much engagement, which makes them question whether their content is even reaching their subscribers, and whether Facebook is tweaking their feed so that certain kinds of updates don’t show up as frequently.
The last time this topic came up, when Cuban and actor George Takei were criticizing the network because of the lack of engagement from subscribers, a number of Facebook users attacked the company for filtering their feeds and not showing them all of the updates from pages or individuals they were following. Some users said the equivalent of: “If I subscribe to someone, I want to see all their updates, not just the ones that you choose to show me.”
In a nutshell, this is the fundamental difference between Twitter and Facebook: the former doesn’t apply any filters to the stream of updates users get, apart from those required by law — if you follow a couple of thousand users, as I do, then you get all of the updates from all of those users, and they flow past you in a giant river of undifferentiated tweets, in reverse chronological order.
Facebook, however, applies all kinds of algorithmic tweaks to a newsfeed based on what some call EdgeRank (although this isn’t a term Facebook uses internally, according to Anthony De Rosa of Reuters), and therefore some updates are more prominent than others, and in some cases updates may never appear at all. Users have control over some of the knobs and dials that will hide or reveal certain kinds of posts, but there is also a lot of filtering that goes on behind the scenes, which makes Facebook a bit of a Google-style black box.
It’s hard to know what you’re missing
Depending on how you see them, these two different approaches can be a good thing or a bad thing: Twitter’s method is theoretically more transparent and comprehensive, since it is completely unfiltered — but it can also be overwhelming, and the network has worked hard to try and help users cope with this vast stream of content, via things like the Discover tab. Facebook’s method seems a lot more invasive and secretive, but at the same time it can make it easier to cope with the never-ending ocean of content — an average of 2,000 posts a day for each user.
Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land has a useful analogy for the difference between the two: Twitter is a little like real-time TV news, while Facebook functions more like a DVR that lets you watch things after they have happened (although to some extent the network chooses what to show you, which your DVR doesn’t). They are two very different experiences of a social stream.
While Facebook users might complain that they want to see everything their social graph posts, the reality is that they likely wouldn’t see everything anyway — unless they sat on their computer all day long reading everything that was posted. Most die-hard Twitter users likely don’t see everything their followers post either, unless they watch the network 24 hours a day, and many use lists (as I do) to try and cope with the volume of content that is posted, or services like Paper.li that allow them to “time shift” that content and catch up with it later.
In the end, the question hangs not just on how you want to handle that stream of updates from your social graph, but who you trust to do that management for you: in the case of Twitter, you are pretty much on your own, and that can be chaotic — but there is a certain purity to it. With Facebook, you have some tools at your disposal to manage that content, but the network itself also does a lot behind the scenes without telling you much about how it works. Facebook says it’s for your own good, but how do you really know what you are missing?