Why should Facebook decide who your friends are?

With over 1.2 billion reported users and close to $200B in market capitalization, Facebook is undoubtedly the most ubiquitous social network today. For most users, the core value proposition of Facebook is simple – it is a means to stay connected with their friends (and acquaintances) and to share and learn about each others’ lives. And yet, over the years and over countless tweaks to Facebook’s NewsFeed algorithm (popularly known as EdgeRank), more and more users complain that they don’t get to see any updates from a majority of their friends. Indeed, the average user has over 300 ‘friends’ on Facebook, but thanks to Facebook’s determination of what’s relevant, they are likely seeing updates from only 20% (or less) of their network. What’s going on? Why is it that I have over 1200 ‘friends’ on Facebook, yet I never see anything from almost a 1000 of those? I used to believe they simply didn’t post as much, until I checked out several people’s profiles and saw major updates I would have liked to see, but never saw, despite logging in several times a day. Why is it that I see some stories over and over for days, and several never appear?

Keep it simple….

Several hours of tweaking Facebook settings, privacy controls and reading Facebook optimization controls told me one thing – it’s complicated by design. There is a lot on Facebook that’s simple and intuitive, but customizing your experience is definitely not. There is an option to sort your feed by ‘Most Recent’ but all it does is sort the pre-selected ‘Top Stories’ into reverse chronological order of any action taken by anyone, thus being not helpful at all as it doesn’t introduce new content and in fact increases repetition. You can unfollow or block users, you can tweak content settings for people and types of content individually, or you can organize your 1200 friends in lists you then follow (like really?). For the average user, it is too much to ask, but I’d venture to say that even for power users, it doesn’t really help much.

They have the edge

EdgeRank works in mysterious ways, and the best one can gather is that Facebook measures and ranks ‘edges’ connecting any one user to another user (or Page, Group, Brand etc) by the strength, time delay and frequency of their interaction. However, only active interactions count, i.e. liking, commenting, following or sharing. So if you passively enjoy reading someone’s updates but don’t actively ‘like’ them, chances are you’d stop seeing updates from them sooner than later. This is true for both your friends as well as pages you may have liked, unless of course they pay Facebook to promote the post. The problem arises when over time you see what you like becomes you like what you see, making your Newsfeed populated by the same subset of users and content types and effectively limiting the reach of content. And lest you figure it out, they tweak (and AB test) EdgeRank all the time. So you may not even realize that the reason some of your real world friends don’t comment on your exciting Facebook updates may be that they actually never got to see it, for no lack of intent whatsoever.

“Trust us, we know what you want to see”

Let’s face it, Facebook does know a lot more about us than we think. As long as you’re signed in, Facebook knows not just what you ‘like’ and who you stalk on their website, but also most likely what articles you’re reading and what websites you’re surfing for how long. Besides, information overload is a real problem. Between friends’ updates, activities, engagement content and brands, Facebook estimates they have thousands of news stories to show every user at any point. Surely some stories are better or more important than the other for every user. But by Facebook’s own estimate, only 0.2% of these stories are ever shown to the user. With no easy way to even access the remaining 99.8% and no straightforward explanation of how those 0.2% are determined, it is unsurprising that I see check-ins every time my dorm neighbour gets down to eat and I totally missed the news of wedding and first child of my high school best friend. And these were happy stories – considering Facebook doesn’t want users to not see many ‘negative’ emotion stories, I wonder what all I’ve missed that would have been relevant to know. Or not.

It’s all about the money, honey

All this brings me to the business of Facebook. It is not so hard to gather that the purpose of ‘optimizing’ your NewsFeed is as much to show you the most relevant updates from your friends as it is to show you ‘relevant’ sponsored stories by those that pay Facebook by creating real estate. Facebook marketing is, after all, a fast growing and rather effective (for now) channel for most brands’ marketing efforts these days. One can argue that, after all, it is a free service that Facebook is providing to the users and they deserve being compensated in some way for it by selling part of the user engagement it creates to the brands who want them. And these are brands the users want too, demonstrated if not explicitly by subscription then implicitly based on their behavior as Facebook understands. Perhaps the users shouldn’t complain so much, after all. Sure, they don’t get a perfect experience and sure, there are a few ethical questions because users don’t really understand how they are being manipulated. But what about the brands themselves?

Thousands of advertisers have spent precious time and money over the years building up reach on Facebook pages, but sometime last year they realized that all of a sudden their messages weren’t being shown to all the users who had ‘Liked’ and previously engaged with their page, never mind to new users. So unless they pay for each posting, or the user is a dedicated follower who actively engages with every piece of content posted since the beginning of the change, Facebook’s reach for most brands is basically a myth and the promise of building an engaged community with two-way communication hollow. I wonder how sustainable this is, in the long run, especially as Wall Street maintains earnings pressure on Facebook and non-advertising revenue on the website continues to slip.

Bottomline, friends are not really friends on Facebook. Fans are not really fans. Don’t like the Likes too much.


  1. Phillip Gara

    Fascinating post and I was very interested in the point you raised at the end questioning the sustainability of tilting the NewsFeed towards sponsored content vs. user generated content. This may end up breaking the perception of comprehensiveness of Facebook's NewsFeed ( i.e. that you will see important news from friends) which would undercut the value of the platform to users. Of course, Facebook will say that they have no obligation to be comprehensive – however, if you are missing news about major life events from your best friends, that's a big problem. The company may also resort to sophisticated methods for predicting the posts you really want to see from friends, including conducting A/B experiments (without your knowledge) to measure your sentiments and other implicit behaviors and preferences. Like you, I am curious to understand how Facebook can really pull off this balancing act in a way that is beneficial for both sides of the platform – users and advertisers – without corroding the value of the platform. Once the NewsFeed becomes too manipulated and the perception of truth is broken, can sophisticated algorithmic manipulations really come in and save the day? It seems to me this bet on machine learning is what the Internet advertising economy (and as a result, the "real" economy) is increasingly committed to.

    This question about the sustainability of business models built on the less than transparent use of personal data is explored in a recent Harvard Business Review article, "With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility" http://hbr.org/2014/11/with-big-data-comes-big-re… In the article, Sandy Pentand also questions whether users will continue sharing data with companies when they do not have the ability to define (or even know) how this data is being used. In the case of Facebook, one may not want to share likes, click throughs, impressions, or even pay for sponsored advertising, when the control of your activity is in many ways outside of your control.

    Pentland describes data as "the new oil of the Internet" claiming that unregulated use of data can lead to similar boom and cycles that have plagued the financial industry. If the use of data for advertising is too opaque, users may move off platform, undercutting the value of a large part of the online (and real) economy. It seems like a very serious policy issue, and one where Pentland's recommendation to give users more control and oversight makes sense.

  2. Abhishek Sharma

    Taru, great post!
    It's definitely annoying to not have a comprehensive collection of updates from all the friends or followers. However, from Facebook's perspective, it constantly need to balance between providing completeness in user experience and ensuring dollars continue flowing in from advertisers. From the business lens, over 90% of Facebook's revenues comes from advertising. In a hypothetical scenario, if Facebook kept pushing all the content to all the followers / friends – every marketer would just spend a one-time lumsum amount with Facebook to attract "Likes" and once a critical mass of "Likes" is achieved, just continue pushing the content: which is free and facebook doesn't directly make money on that. At some point, assuming, with total content ballooning up, update and content density increasing, while average user's time spent on viewing the newsfeed/day not rising commensurately – facebook needs to prioritize through an optimal algorithm. No prioritization doesn't really look like an option. Take the analogy of Google Search, the links on page 1 are always optimized so that Google makes more money. Likewise, facebook will give users a prioritized feed, if the user cares about taking a comprehensive stock of the network, you always have the option to continue scrolling down (just like in Google, you can technically keep clicking the pages) until you find satisfaction.