Wired senior writer Mat Honan and I have the same problem: we both have Facebook News Feeds choked with content we’re not interested in reading, Liking, or sharing. The difference is, he did it on purpose. As an experiment, Honan decided to spend two weeks Liking everything Facebook’s algorithm threw at him. The somewhat predictable result was that, after two weeks, he didn’t actually like anything in his Feed.
What makes Honan’s experiment fascinating is the glimpse it provides into the intricacies of Facebook’s algorithm, the secret sauce that gives each of our Feeds its own flavour. For instance, certain political content seems to give the content-sorting robots strong signals. At one point, a post about the conflict in Israel scrolled past, and Honan thought, “Ah, crap. I have to like something about Gaza.” His feed promptly filled up with content from the far-right of the political spectrum.
Another interesting result of the experiment, the rapid growth of the volume of brand content, caused marketing ears everywhere to perk up. “My News Feed took on an entirely new character in a surprisingly short amount of time,” Honan writes. “After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages.” Facebook takes any Like of a brand message (or any message, for that matter) as a green light to deliver more.
Honan gave Facebook’s robots so many conflicting signals they could only deliver noise in return. He ruined his Feed by deliberately flooding the algorithm with meaningless Likes. I ruined my feed by doing the opposite: nothing. I’ve starved Facebook for meaningful signals that might tell it what I like for years now. Because I’ve only Liked or commented on a handful of posts in the past five years, the robots have no idea what I may actually like. Is it any wonder they get it wrong?
Discussing the experiment and the relative merits of Facebook and Twitter on a recent episode of This Week in Tech, two titans of geek culture had it out. Leo Laporte, the show’s host, declared that he prefers Twitter’s unfiltered approach, while Robert Scoble insisted that Facebook delivers better content, as long as the user gives it the right signals. “When you haven’t given it enough signal, it doesn’t work very well,” Scoble argued. He thinks that, if you don’t like anything in your Feed, it’s your own fault—you didn’t Like anything.
I get most of my content—especially real-time news—from Twitter. But Scoble thinks that’s because I’ve been stuck in a negative feedback loop with Facebook, where it serves me content I don’t want, so I deny it the signals it needs, and it then serves me worse content. So I’m going to try to break the cycle. For two weeks, once a day, I’m going to give the robots all the signals they needs to figure out what I want to read, Like, and share. Here’s the plan to fix my Facebook feed:
1. Always Like the things I like
I’m expecting this to be the lever that has the greatest effect. The Like button is the strongest signal users give Facebook to tell the robots what content they want more of. I’m going to be judicious with my Likes, but not stingy. The goal is to curate the content that will improve my experience of the News Feed as a content delivery system.
2. Hide the junk
Not every signal I give Facebook is a good one. When you’re in line at the grocery store, you may glance at a trashy magazine, but you don’t want to subscribe to that magazine. Similarly, I don’t want more of everything I read on Facebook. While I occasionally indulge in click-hole content, I need to correct any signals that will clutter my Feed. That’s what the Hide button is for.
3. Don’t feed the trolls
I have a bad habit of getting sucked into comment thread debates on Facebook. Sometimes they’re fun, and sometimes I only realize when it’s too late that I’ve wasted 45 minutes of my adult life debating the finer points of Star Trek TNG versus the original. The goal here is to shape my Feed into a great content channel, so I’m going to exercise some discipline, and avoid feeding the trolls.
4. Leave groups and unfollow pages
Both pages and groups can clutter your feed. I’m going to do a tough-minded audit of what I’m following, eliminating everything that doesn’t contribute to my goal of the perfectly curated Feed. No offence to the groups I’m leaving—I still think you’re cool (maybe), but I’m on a mission.
5. Make new “close” friends
I don’t have any “close” friends. I mean, I do, but Facebook doesn’t know that. I haven’t designated anyone as formally “close.” With this experiment, I’m going to change that, not by identifying the people I actually hang out with all the time, but by finding a select group of people I know and like who share great content and elevating them to “close” status.
In two weeks, we’ll have the results. Hopefully the before and after will provide not only advice you can use to improve your Feed, but also some insight into how the robots work.