Monday, March 4, 2013

Facebook Algorithm tweaks and its impact

Facebook has tweaked its News Feed algorithm that basically displays the activity of your friends and subscriptions. To those who have seen a decline in activity or the number of likes and comments on their posts, there is a surprise.

Nick Bilton, a popular journalist made merry of the subscription feature that was introduced on Facebook which allowed people to see others public activity streams without being Friends. Many other journalists and celebrities like Nick made good use of this feature and promoted their content and activity on Facebook. Like in all happy tales, there was a climax.

In the quest of making more for its advertiser base, Facebook started sponsored stories, which allowed an advertiser to promote his/her story on your timeline. But along with this what Facebook also did was "suppress" the updates from your personal network. 

I too noticed this odd change as I was being exposed to a lot of updates from brand pages than my own friend circle. I thought probably they had made a wise choice to refrain from Facebook, but that actually wasn't true. Most of their activity was actually not making it to my timeline. 

Michael Arrington at TechCrunch has noted that "Facebook has the incentive to make the free views scarce to increase demand for the paid views"

Facebook, which earlier helped people stay closer to friends is now helping people stay closer to "brands" and advertisers. This in the long term has the potential to impact happiness quotient. Relational goals and Materialistic goals are two extremes. Staying connected with your friends and family helps you achieve relational goals. Getting into a materialistic lifestyle facilitated by consumption of brands reduces long term happiness.

The problem is not in promoting brands. I am perfectly OK with Facebook getting a large share of the advertising budget and its shareholders becoming rich. What I am not OK with is the non-democratic approach followed to reach there. Internet is a huge democracy and companies like Facebook have become rich and powerful owing to this structure of internet where all nodes are equal. Why suppress feeds of my friends? We can have both in the same place.

The argument against having both in the same is place is the problem of low attention span. If you have too many stories on your news feed, chances are the attention per-story is going to reduce. Couple that with an increasing weight on updates in people you know, brands will loose attention span. This makes the case for suppressing updates from people you know.

But what will happen if people did not get comments and likes on their posts or stuff they shared? It is going to reduce a key aspect of relational development process i.e. reciprocity. Reciprocity is a very important aspect of relationship development. If people feel there is no reciprocity, they are either going to buy it through sponsored stories (which seems like an unlikely event) or their attention span on Facebook in whole is going to further reduce. It again hurts the advertiser and also reduces interest in Facebook.

These tweaks in the algorithm of Facebook affects 1 billion people. Factoring in the time spent by each of these users, Facebook has a big social responsibility on its hands.While research shows social media use has positively impacted happiness, such tweaks have the potential of long term harmful impact on society.

Do you agree with this? Share your thoughts below.