Friendship based on algorithms

how do you know

What’s this now? A “News Feed” and a “Live Feed”? Facebook has changed its interface again. I didn’t immediately understand. Apparently, the Live Feed includes everything that’s currently going on in my social online world, and the News Feed just features some highlights. In other words, Facebook believes that a lot of the stuff my friends are up to is simply not relevant. Fair enough, I heard a lot of people say that the previous News Feed had become slightly overwhelming. But how does Facebook know what the interesting stuff is?

The code in the background

Facebook apparently has an algorithm, or piece of code, that sifts through all the information people post and then decides which items are most relevant to me. This is certainly not the first algorithm that influences how I live my life. Think about Google searches determining which websites come up first, or last.fm pretending to know my taste in music.

Not last because of its name, the Facebook “News Feed” reminds me of Google News. This news aggregating website has been the subject of fierce debate over the way it sorts and prioritizes news websites. The point is that something as hidden and secretive as an algorithm can have a major impact on the way we perceive things – in this case also on how many visits news websites receive through Google News and the money they subsequently make.

The code taking over

Coming back to Facebook. Google News and the Facebook “News Feed” have in common that they both use an algorithm to prioritize and rank certain items out of a mess of information that’s available out there. Only that in one case this mess of information is news and in the other case this information is what you’re friends are up to. That’s something to keep in mind these days.

But how does Facebook know what “the most interesting things” are that recently happened? May I quote their official blog post regarding this crucial point:

News Feed picks stories that we think you’ll enjoy based on a variety of factors including how many friends have liked and commented on it and how likely you are to interact with that story.

A variety of factors? How likely I am to interact with that story? Mmmm. I’m beginning to see what is happening here. To put it crudely, Facebook has been following my activities on its pages for a while and it is now confident enough to predict how I will behave in the future. How else would Facebook know how likely I am to interact with a story? There’s a probability value attached to my engagement with a friend’s recent status update about his Halloween party.

The connections are in the code

If we continued down this path of reasoning a little further, I can’t help but come to some uncomfortable conclusions. Now that some stories and friends are more likely to appear in my News Feed, other stories and friends will be faded out. My social online world will gravitate towards a subset of friends and “news”, determined and reinforced by an algorithm.

Whereas before I still had a larger degree of influence over who I would connect with, using Facebook merely as a platform for these connections, I am now subject to the website’s code and databases. The structure of my social online life is written and to a large extent demarcated by code written by Mr. Zuckerberg’s guys.

Curious about the code

Why am I complaining? Because quite a bit of my social life is happening on Facebook and because all I’m told is that it’s happening according to “a variety of factors” and some obscure probability values. And most importantly, because I have no idea how this algorithm actually works. I was sort of indifferent to finding out how the Google search works or how last.fm comes up with the next song. But when it comes to ranking what my friends are up to, I’m a bit more curious.

The big picture is that this trend towards hidden and proprietary algorithms shaping out lives has been going on for a while now and is likely to intensify. It doesn’t hurt to call for a little more transparency in how this is happening. Unfortunately, these algorithms are at the very heart of the intellectual property that companies such as Facebook and Google have amassed. Taking it from them seems close to impossible.

2 responses to “Friendship based on algorithms

  1. since the idea of facebook is making things public, and that´s exactly what we do, when we start to manage our social and private life through platforms like that, it seems that we could expect the same from facebook itself. but facebook is just another game, trying to be a reality. it is promoting and selling itself, when it suggests us to suggest friends to people we know… I would say, our whole media-social life has its algorithms. don´t newspapers, tv, radio, big cities have them too? unfortunately, there is no compromiss, it´s either accepting the rules or isolation

  2. Remember, though, what happened back in the days of November 2006 when Facebook first introduced the News Feed:

    1) The feed was by no means live or all-encompassing. It presented a selection of happenings (not sure whether statuses were already a part of that and too lazy to look it up) in your Friends network, based on … probably an earlier version of said algorithm. So the “new News Feed” may well just be a more or less developed version of the “old-old News Feed”. This does not, however, provide a forward-looking perspective. I.e., your guess as to what may happen with the News Feed (and the selection of things presented to you, possibly influenced by your pageviews, Likes, etc.) and the possible narrowed focus on the “core” of your FB Friends still stands. (Then again, still as a guess because the algorithm is proprietary and no thoughts as to the further development of it have yet been shared by FB.)

    2) There was nothing less than a shit storm of outrage when the News Feed was first introduced. And another one when they changed layout. And again when they made the News Feed “live” (i.e. effectively turning it into a Twitter variant, even though that’s a crude analogy). And again when they separated News and Live Feeds.
    My subjective feeling is, tough, that the peaks of outrage decline (someone could operationalize this and try to dig up the data – but it’s not going to be me, tonight). Further to that, my subjective feeling is that in terms of what the Feeds offer, Facebook is getting ever better. I was greatly annoyed when the Feed turned live, because I liked the prioritization of a selection of events – some from Friends from very “remote corners” of my social network – over recency. Then I learned to appreciate the “liveness”. Then I was very pleased to see that a separation of feeds enabled a best-of-both-worlds solution.
    -> Point being, I think the developers are clever and very responsive to user requests and behavior. The cleverness – and resulting innovative changes in the featureset – may occasionally drive users down the change curve; but that curve – looking as it does – comes back up again when the sadness is gone. Ultimately, history up to this point shows that optimism with regards to what happens next may very well be in order.

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