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It seems like Facebook’s favorite pastime is messing with its algorithm, to the terror of brands, media, and consumers everywhere. With each tweak, unexpected consequences can plummet traffic referrals or surface non-stop Buzzfeed articles.
Today’s change is all about timing. The company wants to make the posts that appear in your feed more relevant based on the context of “when.” That way, you’re not seeing your friends statuses about the Emmys days after they’re over, or coming across news articles that are already outdated.
Facebook didn’t explain where it got the idea for its algorithm shift, but perhaps it’s the result of the criticism the platform faced when news about Ferguson was buried instead by ice-bucket challenge videos on the feed. Several media outlets trumpeted it to show that Twitter is still the “hard news king,” despite all the work Facebook has put into becoming your one-stop media consumption shop.
I reached out to Facebook to ask whether Ferguson played a role, and I received the following non-answer sort of answer that big companies love to dole out:
The goal of News Feed is to show the right content to the right people at the right time. We’re always listening to feedback from people who use Facebook to do a better job of this. We’ve heard feedback that some content is timely content such as breaking news or an update to a sports game – and that we could do a better job of showing this at the time it’s most important. Today’s update aims to help solve this issue.
To emphasize timeliness, Facebook’s algorithm will put more weight on posts that correlate to trending topics on the site. Those will appear higher up in your feed, and when the topics stop trending they’ll shift lower or disappear altogether. Facebook will also track engagement on your posts and if it sees a lot of likes or comments when you first post, but less engagement later on, it will assume your post was timely and it will decrease its prominence.
Theoretically, this is a good thing: more relevant posts for you to see in the time they’re still relevant. But like with most Facebook algorithm changes, there could be unforeseen consequences or effects. Perhaps you’re going to be inundated with far more news and less evergreen posts from friends and family. Perhaps you’ll stop seeing your friends’ wedding photos if you don’t hop on the day they post them. Facebook might shift to look a little more like Twitter — ironically at the same time Twitter is trying to become more like Facebook — with a focus on real time discussions and dialogue.
Like with all algorithm tweaks, we just don’t know until it kicks into effect.
This post has been updated to include Facebook’s comment.