On Thursday, Facebook announced a change to its News Feed: Instead of passively following the glut of content selected by the site's algorithm, now users can pick a few dozen friends and pages to prioritize what appears at the top of their News Feed.
It seems like a simple update, until you consider how much power Facebook's News Feed algorithm has over what we read.
In 2014, Facebook was responsible for about a quarter of all traffic -- across the entire web. That means that almost one-fourth of the time that people came to a website, they came from Facebook.com. Aside from status updates and baby photos, Facebook has become an important source for information and news. Nearly half of Americans with Internet access use Facebook to read news about politics and government, according to a 2014 Pew poll, about as many as followed local television. And the News Feed is the central hub of the Facebook referral service, a hub that is increasingly becoming the way Americans get information.
But Facebook’s News Feed has always been a passive experience, with the site’s algorithm determining what its users see. The idea that Facebook should be the arbiter of what's important to its users started with the News Feed's origin story when, according to David Kirkpatrick’s book The Facebook Effect, CEO Mark Zuckerberg justified using an algorithm in the service of users: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”
The problem, for those who might find their interests more piqued by Africa than pest control, is there’s no clear way to override the algorithm -- other than clicking on the kind of content you want to see and hoping for the best. It’s a nannying stance that the company continues to espouse, most recently in an interview this week for Time with Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s News Feed product management director. A purely chronological feed, he said, would be bad for users because “people would miss a lot more important content. Our whole mission is to show people content that we think that they find meaningful."
Determining what Facebook thinks interests its users has become make or break for publishers. Some companies like Upworthy and Mashable draw in readers by gaming the Facebook algorithm. Others, like The New York Times and BuzzFeed, have begun hosting their content directly on Facebook.
And regardless of how well sites are able to game the algorithm, everyone is vulnerable to shifts in Facebook’s policies. When the company announced in April that it would prioritize content from users’ “friends” over that from “pages,” it sent digital publishers into a panic. In February, Facebook’s top 10 publishers saw a huge drop in traffic referrals, which was later attributed to a News Feed bug. But the message it sent was clear: Just as easily as Facebook can send traffic to a site, it can also take that traffic away.
These effects were highlighted in a study published by two Facebook employees in the research journal Science this May. The researchers found that the algorithm limits “cross-cutting” news -- stories that take the opposite political stance to a user’s self-identification -- eliminating 8 percent of oppositional news stories for liberals and 5 percent for conservatives. (Users' choices were also found to limit this cross-cutting content.)
On Thursday afternoon, Zuckerberg announced the News Feed update on his personal page. “Our goal is to help you connect with the people and things you care about the most,” he wrote. Though the shift doesn’t fix the problems with the Facebook algorithm, for the first time it makes a portion of the feed transparent -- giving users a margin of accountability over what they read. Prioritize pages about squirrels. Favorite a bunch of news sites about Africa. For now, at least, it’s marginally up to you.