Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Facebook to Nick Bilton (And Everyone Else): Seriously, There’s No Pay to Play Scheme Here

facebook_thumbsSee? People still read the New York Times!

Stung by an article columnist Nick Bilton published yesterday, which suggested Facebook was gaming its news feed so that users would have a reason to pay to promote their posts, the social network is publishing a lengthy post of its own.

Summary: No, that’s not true.

You can read the full text below, but if you’ve been following the story you’ll note that Facebook has already made most of these points before. In Bilton’s piece itself, for instance. And my suspicion is that their coms team reached out to several other folks in the last 24 hours.

In any case, nothing wrong with letting them spell it out one more time. My TLDR:

  • Yes, Facebook says, we tweak our newsfeed algorithms all the time. We tweak everything all the time.
  • Just because Bilton and others have seen engagement on their posts drop over time doesn’t mean that it’s happening for everyone: “Overall engagement on posts from people with followers has gone up 34% year over year.”
  • And yes, people like Bilton (and me, and lots of other bloggers, writers and other quasi-prominent people) who started accumulating “followers” via the site’s “subscribe option” early may have seen engagement drop.
  • Why? Here Facebook isn’t as clear as it could or should be. My gut is that lots of those followers, and the likes/shares/comments they generated, were either people who didn’t know what they were doing, or, less charitably, not real people at all, but some kind of spam/bot/zombie. Dunno.

Alright. But Facebook is offering Bilton, and everyone else, the chance to boost their engagement numbers for a fee. So when Bilton (or others) see their engagement numbers drop, and then they see Facebook’s for-profit solution, isn’t it natural for them to put two and two together?

nick-biltonMaybe, says Will Cathcart, product manager for Facebook’s news feed. But that doesn’t mean they’re right, he said during a brief phone interview. Instead, he says, think of it like Google, which displays “organic” search results on its results pages, and also gives people the chance to buy their way onto the page as well.

Okay. But you can take everything Facebook says at face value and still end up with a nagging feeling.

It’s not that Bilton or Star Trek actor George Takei or anyone else has a right to have every single thing they post on Facebook distributed as widely as they like. It’s that Facebook often rolls out new products, and then asks users, advertisers or partners to invest time and energy using them. And then it changes its mind quite quickly.

That’s part of the Facebook “move fast and break things” credo, and that makes perfect sense when you’re trying to sustain the “hacker way” in a big company. But Facebook is a big company, with a billion users, and $5 billion in revenue, and a desire to increase both of those numbers. If it moves too fast, without enough warning, it might find it leaves some folks behind.

Our goal with News Feed is always to show each individual the most relevant blend of stories that maximizes engagement and interest.

There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue. This is not true. We want to clear up any misconceptions by explaining how the News Feed algorithm works.

First, in aggregate, engagement – likes, comments, shares – has gone up for most people with followers. In fact, overall engagement on posts from people with followers has gone up 34% year over year.

Second, a few data points should not be taken as representative of what actually is happening overall. There are numerous factors that may affect distribution, including quality and number of posts.

News Feed shows people the most relevant stories from their friends and Pages they are connected to. In fact, the News Feed algorithm is separate from the advertising algorithm in that we don’t replace the most engaging posts in News Feed with sponsored ones.

Some other background points for context:

The argument here is based on a few anecdotes of one post from one year to a totally different post from another year.
This is an apples-to-oranges comparison; you can’t compare engagement rates on two different posts year over year.
These anecdotes are taken as representative of what is happening overall.
In fact, the opposite is happening overall – engagement has gone up 34% on posts from people who have more than 10,000 followers.
For early adopters of Follow, we do see instances where their follower numbers have gone up but their engagement has gone down from a year ago.
When we first launched Follow, the press coverage combined with our marketing efforts drove large adoption. A lot of users started following public figures who had turned on Follow.
Over time, some of those users engaged less with those figures, and so we started showing fewer stories from those figures to users who didn’t engage as much with their stories.
The News Feed changes we made in the fall to focus on higher quality stories may have also decreased the distribution for less engaging stories from public figures.
In the past six months, however, we have introduced changes to solve the above instance – the goal being to promote more content from public figures. These include organic units in NF such as “most shared on ,” “most shared about ,” and redesigned feed stories for link shares that feature larger images and longer descriptions. Our index of partners has already seen a significant increase in traffic (35%) due to the introduction of these units.
We are constantly working to improve people’s experience with News Feed, and changes like the above we think will surface more of the right posts to the right people.

By the way: The question of how Facebook’s partners ought to view a company that moves fast and breaks stuff was one of the central themes of conversation between my colleague Mike “The Tat” Isaac and Facebook partnership czar Dan Rose last month at D: Dive Into Media. Worth reviewing again here:

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik