Gradually but inexorably, Facebook
(NASDAQ:FB) has been changing the algorithm that determines which posts its users see and in what order.
The company says it is doing this to improve the quality of the main news feed that each of its billion users sees. Brands that rely on Facebook to boost clicks to their sites claim the changes were made to force them to pay for better visibility and boost Facebook's revenues.
Almost certainly, both are right.
The issue has been boiling below the surface for a while now, but it has suddenly made the news via -- what else -- a viral post.
Eat24, a food-delivery site, just posted
a funny, sarcastic open letter to Facebook, announcing that it is pulling its Facebook page because the changes in the site's algorithm have buried the funny, sarcastic posts that helped it earn 70,000 followers.
Eat24's "breakup letter" reads, in part:
When we first met, you made us feel special. We'd tell you a super funny joke about Sriracha and you'd tell all our friends and then everyone would laugh together. But now? Now you want us to give you money if we want to talk to our friends. Now when we show you a photo of a taco wrapped with bacon, you're all like "PROMOTE THIS POST! GET MORE FRIENDS!" instead of just liking us for who we are. That's hella messed up.
The food site is indignant about the algorithm changes, and what they mean for its special kind of humor:
...your algorithm is saying most of our friends don't care about sushi porn, that they aren't interested in hearing our deepest thoughts about pizza toppings. Are you listening to yourself? Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? You know that all those people clicked "Like" on our page because it's full of provocatively posed burritos and cheese puns, right?
No surprisingly, Eat24 has gotten more buzz from this posting than it ever got on Facebook, even for its sushi porn.
But a Facebook spokesperson soon posted an equally irreverent comment on the Eat24 story:
"There is some serious stuff happening in the world and one of my best friends just had a baby and another one just took the best photo of his homemade cupcakes and what we have come to realize is people care about those things more than sushi porn."
As you can see, Facebook executives have as peculiar a definition of "important stuff" as Eat24 does. However, Facebook owns the algorithm here, and that's what counts.
Facebook says its intention is to improve the unique news feed that each user sees by prioritizing high-quality content. In the process, it is burying posts that are purely promotional, posts from so-called "content farms" that produce articles of dubious value, and posts that exploit the latest Internet memes.
It would be interesting to see Facebook's research on the subject. It may have reason to worry that its users are getting turned off by the sheer volume of junk posts -- even if the problem was caused by users' own casual "likes."
Inevitably, the process is both flawed and opaque, and the losers are up in arms. There's only one way around the system, and that is to pay to play. If you want your post to be seen, pay for a "promoted" post, Facebook advises its users.
In many if not most cases, it's easy to see Facebook's point. Major advertisers have been getting a free ride on the site for going on 10 years now.
Then again, so have many small start-ups with zero advertising budgets, and many worthy editorial operations that are not particularly profitable -- or won't be if their stories no longer get that all-important Facebook exposure.
For them, a tweak in the Facebook algorithm could be a buzzkiller of epic proportions.
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