Why You May Be Getting Bored With Your Facebook Newsfeed

DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Is Facebook News Feed getting more boring/stale? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Abhinav Sharma, former Facebook employee, on Quora:

Since Facebook’s Newsfeed is so personalized, you might be in a minority if you think that it is boring/stale. What you’re probably witnessing is the result of burnout on your personal news feed as a result of:

  1. An engagement driven value function that prioritizes unsatisfying but high clickthrough probability content. I don’t know what it is (I didn’t work on Newsfeed) but its common external knowledge that it prioritizes things like clicks.
  2. A global decline in original content being posted to Facebook.

Facebook relies on the principle of variable rewards to addict you to newsfeed.

Why does this work? The answer has to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s tightly linked with desire and habit. Getting a reward increases dopamine levels in your brain, which motivates you to do the thing which got you the reward (rats with missing dopamine receptors struggle to build habits). But dopamine isn’t just pleasure, it’s about anticipation of pleasure. When we know how the game works (this lever press won’t give us a reward, but the next one will), our novelty seeking brains get bored. But when the rewards are unpredictable, we stay on edge. Studies have shown that unpredictable rewards cause greater increases of dopamine, which may be why the behavior that lead to the reward gets so strongly reinforced. Let’s look briefly at how variable rewards has been applied in areas like casinos and games. It’s a gamble: dopamine levels tied to uncertainty of rewards

Now it’s in publishers’ commercial interest to produce content that have sensationalist headlines and tailor it to as many people as possible to maximize sharing. I’m going to call this “global clickbait” since it’s not personalized you you and your social graph but likely to take advantage of your System 1 brain to get you to click through. See Designing, Fast or Slow? – Quora Design – Medium for more.

And if a ranking algorithm’s value function is optimizing for clicks, what ends up happening is that every time you come back you see some new global clickbait. The problem with trying to create an addiction loop around global clickbait is that over time humans start to recognize patterns in variable reward content (untrustworthy domain names, titles that read like “53 reasons you won’t believe …”, patterns in meme images etc.) and they’re no longer truly variable.

Which brings me to original content. What’s happened with the rise of Snapchat and messaging is that original content sharing has moved from this Facebook “broadcast to all friends” model to something more private. So now we have a decline in variable rewards that are uniquely personalized to you and strategically defensible to Facebook.

What has tended to happen to a lot of old time Facebook power users is that we were baited with photos of friends and family, then it switched to reshared links and images, modeled to believe that Facebook is no longer the place where you write lengthy posts on “walls” any more, and consequently having Newsfeed be full of some dramatic headlines because that’s all our friends share any more.

Because Facebook is so personalized, different users are in different stages of this rise and fall, but most are still very engaged if you are to take the daily active users stats at face value.

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