The Facebook Algorithm

We all get a little paranoid–that is if we care about whether anyone is reading the posts we labor over–about the Facebook algorithm. I thought I might share a little of what I know about this phenomenon so my friends can know what it’s about and why it’s worth anyone’s concern. My comments come from no secret corner of the Dark Net, they are just the musings of a person who had a pretty long career in Information Technology and who has been concerned about social media since about 1985.

Perhaps the first thing to understand about the algorithm is that it actually is necessary for all of us. That’s because of the way Facebook is structured. Older social media was structured by threads. Everyone would always see every post that was made to a given thread. For example, in the old UseNet there was a discussion group called soc.culture.jewish, and under that header there would be topics and everyone’s posts to those topics would be listed in chronological order.

Facebook has a different structure. Facebook wants each of us to display the variety of concerns we might have–family, profession, hobbies, politics–everything is under one header, namely our individual names (of course, organized as Facebook IDs). Each Facebook user has anywhere from several dozen to several hundred (or even more!) “friends.” If we saw every posting of every one of these when we logged in, finding what we care about would be hopeless.

Facebook gives each of us a bit of control over how things show up. You can choose to “follow” people or designate people or sites as “close” or “show first.” Of those, in my experience, only “show first” makes much of a difference. But if you follow many people, indicate many are close friends, or designate many as “show first” you’ll soon find your Facebook feed inundated with things you probably don’t want to see.

Enter the Facebook algorithm. Keep in mind that Facebook wants you to be happy. You haven’t paid a dime to use Facebook, right? So how does Facebook make money? And most of you probably know the answer is advertising. Facebook is an entertainment company much like TV stations, and it depends on revenue from advertisers. Facebook wants you to be happy for the same reason that CBS, NBC and ABC want you to be happy–they only receive money when ratings companies tell them that they have lots of viewers, and Facebook only receives money when advertisers know that there is some chance you are looking at their ads.

But Facebook has one huge advantage over those networks. You have to log in to Facebook, which means that Facebook knows every single thing you choose to look at. It knows what you’ve pressed “like” on, it knows what you think is important enough to comment on. If you put in a link to Amazon in a Facebook post or comment, that can signal to Amazon that you are worth their attention for ads. If you start talking about Grey’s Anatomy, you’ll probably notice ads from ABC or various sponsors of that show showing up in a panel on Facebook. If you complain about taxes, you just might find ads from anti-tax politicians showing up in your feed.

Quite a few people know and understand this and don’t like it. They obviously might choose to abandon Facebook entirely, or limit their posts, never “like” anything, that sort of thing. That does deprive Facebook of information, but it also means Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t have what it needs to try to show you things you might like. Perhaps more importantly, it won’t know which of your friends’ posts you might like to see.

Those who have studied this tell me that the actual algorithm is fiendishly complicated and for good reason. If others can figure out how it works, they can game it to make their posts more popular than others. Nevertheless, a few things are clear. Again, Facebook wants you to be happy because they know that will keep you tuned in longer. So they do pay close attention to what you press “like” on, what you comment on, that sort of thing. One of the subtleties is whether pressing “sad” or “happy” or “angry” makes it more likely or less likely to see things which Facebook deems comparable. And that’s the sort of thing Facebook can change up to disrupt those that are trying to game the system.

The algorithm is definitely smart enough to spot trends. For example, I recently posted a birthday photo of myself that quickly drew a dozen “likes.” Facebook sees that this is likely to be a popular post of mine and shares it out to many of my friends–and even people it decides might want to become my friends. I would also hazard a guess that the algorithm is clever enough to spot congratulatory responses. In other words, it figures that if some folks are saying “Congrats” or “Mazel Tov” that other friends likely want to see it as well. So it quickly snowballs into a hundred or more “likes” and many comments. Other posts of mine–ones that I might think are more important–only garner a couple of likes or comments after an hour or two, and Facebook deprecates them and doesn’t bother showing them to the vast majority of my friends. Even though may of them would probably prefer them over the birthday photo.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the algorithm is that people with whom you feel a close connection–even people you know in “real life” not just online–can suddenly drop out of view. It is possible to combat some of this by the simple approach of searching for and clicking on their name. Facebook will then show you most if not all of your friend’s posts. And if you “like” or “comment” and the friend responds, the Facebook algorithm will usually return to showing  most of that friend’s posts.

One technique to make sure targeted friends will see your post is to actually refer to their Facebook ID , either in the post or in a comment below. If you’ve been around Facebook for awhile, you’ve probably seen comments that look like @friend1, @friend2, @friend3. From time to time, bringing a post to a specific person’s attention might make sense. But overusing this technique can be annoying to your friends, and Facebook doesn’t always cooperate by sending the post their way.

The one approach that I think does not work unless you just don’t care to read the posts of your friends is to ignore things you see that you actually do like. Many people think this is a great way to frustrate Facebook, but  it’s the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face. As I mentioned at the beginning, Facebook wants you to be happy, and it will try to show you things that will keep your attention on Facebook. If you don’t provide that feedback, then you won’t be seeing most of your friends’ posts either.

You might be wondering why I say that no one understands the algorithm since most of what I’ve surmised is considered pretty likely among those who discuss it. The answer is that the actual algorithm is fiendishly complex. It has all sorts of traps designed to foil attempts to game it. It has ways of deciding how long to wait to show you a post–which is why I often hear from my readers, “You posted this a week ago, but Facebook just showed it to me now.”

And we should acknowledge one more thing. Sometimes it is not Facebook, it’s us. You might think that someone is your good friend, but if you could look at their side of the Facebook ledger, you just might find that they’ve “unfollowed” you or otherwise told Facebook they don’t care much to interact with you.

I’m looking forward to seeing comments about this article below, or on Facebook where I will also be linking this. I’ll try to update it with thoughts and suggestions as they arise.

3 thoughts on “The Facebook Algorithm

  1. Hello Roy. I tried to make clear that I have no “insider” information about the Facebook algorithm, just what I’ve been able to surmise as a relatively educated observer.

  2. A contribution I have to this discussion is that I believe fb gives extra attention to travel. I have enjoyed vicariously traveling around the world with friends, seeing their every post for days or weeks. I believe my travel posts get spread widely as well as they seem to get more likes than my usual posts about Cuomo (that last part is a joke)

  3. do you happen to know how Facebook stores and connects all their datas. “the actual algorithm is fiendishly complex” can you summarize the alogorithm? Do they use cookies? or search your history?.

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