Manipulating the Facebook News Feed

On average, internet users spend more time staring at Facebook than any other website. For active users in the US, this amounts to about 40 minutes per day. That's a lot.

Approximately 1.2 billion people use Facebook daily, of which about 204 million or so are active users in the US and Canada (out of a total of 349 million). Google may outpace Facebook in visits to the site, but the entire point of a search engine is to help you find what you're looking for, which usually means routing you away from the search engine.

Because it commands so many eyeballs in the aggregate, the top of your Facebook news page is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on the internet.

Like the Google search algorithm, the system that controls the Facebook news feed is shrouded in secrecy. The company says that it determines which stories to show based on your connections and activity. Advertisers are very interested in connecting and being active with you, and so there is a natural fit for someone who has merchandise and wants you to notice their products to connect with you on Facebook. Like Google, targeted advertising is how Facebook makes most of its income.

Like any system, the Facebook news feed can be manipulated to achieve a certain result. One way to counter this is to use a special link - instead of simply - after you've logged into the site:

That snippet at the end - "?sk=h_chr" lets Facebook know that you want your News feed sorted in chronological order, instead of sorted by the News feed algorithm. That gives Facebook less of an opportunity to sort your friends' posts for you, and instead you'll just get the recent stuff. I don't have a ton of connections on Facebook - I use it solely for personal communication - so this is perfect for me. Getting this to work in the mobile application is a little trickier, but still possible (click the "More" button, or the horizontal lines, and look for "Most Recent" under "Favorites").

Another way to have fun with the news feed is to trick it. While we don't know for sure, based on observation, we assume that Facebook's system is designed to give extra weight to posts that are 1) exciting, 2) personal, 3) involve major life events. In theory, putting words like "new baby," "marriage," or "new job" are going to be more likely to be noticed than "Going to the gym now." To see this in action, check this post out. Or this one.

Advertisers have figured this out as well, and because so much money is at stake, someone was going to find a shortcut to getting their content promoted. Similar to the issues of click bait with Google, services labeled as "Like Farms" now exist to generate buzz around an advertiser's products via their Facebook page. Because the news algorithm appears to be reinforcing (more attention results in more promotion), generating a rapid amount of "Likes" and hence traffic early is an inorganic but quick and dirty way to get noticed.

“With AuthenticLikes, we observed likes from more than 700 profiles within the first four hours of the second day of data collection,” say De Cristofaro and co. After that, there was not a single additional like.

The team say this is likely to be the result of automated bots operating a set of fake profiles. Just why Facebook is unable to prevent this kind of activity is not clear.

The quote above is from MIT's Technology Review, which recently studied the phenomena. Another study from Cornell is coming soon.

Facebook itself is very aware of all of this, of course. In late August they implemented some policy changes to crack down on the more egregious click-baiting.

In conclusion, I don't think that any of this is necessary bad or evil. Like radio and broadcast television before it, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all provide us with incredible services in communication and search capability without directly charging us anything, which is amazing when you think about it.

If you don't want Facebook or other companies offering targeted advertising, you can always delete your account and not use the (free) service anymore. If that's a bridge too far, don't volunteer any information about yourself other than the bare minimum. When you spend 15 minutes telling Facebook which TV shows you like and what kind of car you drive, what do you think they do with that information?