Some Exciting Personal News

It’s funny how Jay Rosen introduces each of his recent Facebook posts with “I’ve got some exciting personal news”, and then goes on explaining that he’s only trying to trick the newsfeed algorithm.

If he wrote on a web page, it would be the equivalent of writing “sex, sex, sex” somewhere on the page in order to push it higher in Google’s search results. (Or perhaps, more realistically, to maintain automatic link farms to boost the rank of that page.)

With Google, we’ve gotten used to the fact that search results are produced by invisible ranking algorithms. This includes the fact that these algorithms can only work if their details are not known to the public. We realize that SEO is a shady practice, and there’s a pretty broad consensus that “the best way to get your page high up in search results is to have great content”.

In other words, we’re fine with Google doing it, because it works well.

Facebook doesn’t have that bonus. We’re irritated because things disappear from our newsfeed that we think should be there. The algorithms don’t work too well – yet.

But is it even necessary to filter the newsfeed? As a long-time Twitter user, I’m not sure. There’s a feeling of control, of knowing exactly what’s going on when you are entirely responsible for your own timeline. What Facebook gets admirably right, though, is to introduce me to stuff I didn’t have on my radar yet. It shows up in my feed because a friend commented on it or liked it. This is highly selective, I’m not seeing all of my friends’ activity. But what I see is usually right on the mark.

There were reports recently in which people manipulated their newsfeed by liking just about everything, or the other way round, not liking anything at all, and then were astonished how their feed changed as a consequence of that. This reminds me of the steering wheel on an ocean ship. Sure, if you turn that thing, the ship turns. That’s what it’s designed for.

I would hope that the algorithms do get better. I would rather not have a platform that leaves me alone with my friends, but one that points me to things that widen my horizon. Given the sheer size of our information universe, it surely takes algorithms to do that.

(Originally posted on Facebook.)

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