How the Facebook News Feed Algorithm Shapes Your Friendships

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Facebook has taken on more responsibility for your social life than you might think. I think most people assume they are seeing most of what their friends say, but they aren't, as a recent Daily Beast investigation showed.

The service takes all your friends and decides, based on a secret ranking system, which of the things they say should show up in your News Feed. Because that feed is the default way that most people see stuff on Facebook, that algorithm has become the de facto social filter for hundreds of millions of people. Even if you would never consciously consider using an algorithm to shape your friendships -- surprise! -- you already do.

And yet we don't know much about how Facebook's system actually works. So, the Daily Beast, led by editor Thomas Weber, devised a simple and interesting experiment. They got a Facebook newbie to sign up and twelve volunteers to friend him. When he updated his status or shared a link, they watched their own feeds to see if his posts showed up. Often, they didn't. It helped if he shared a link. And it helped a lot if he shared a photo or video. But those little, "Heading to the grocery store" tidbits? They were heading out into cybernothingness.

All of which leads me to the inevitable recasting of the old tree-forest question: If a Facebook user posts and the algorithm decides that no one should hear it, did he really write something?

Here's Weber's conclusion from the Beast:

For average users, cracking the Facebook code is something of a fun puzzle. But for marketers trying to tap Facebook--or individuals who see the service as a way to promote themselves--understanding how content propagates through the system is anything but a game.

But it also means that many users may not be aware of how much power they've put in the hands of this electronic mediator. (The very concept of the News Feed was controversial as soon as it was unveiled, as chronicled in David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect.)

You might think you've shared those adorable new baby photos or the news of your big promotion with all of your friends. Yet not only does Facebook decide who will and won't see the news, it also keeps the details of its interventions relatively discreet.

All the while, Facebook, like Google, continues to redefine "what's important to you" as "what's important to other people." In that framework, the serendipitous belongs to those who connect directly with their friends in the real world -- or at least take the time to skip their News Feed and go visit their friends' pages directly once in a while.

Read the full story at The Daily Beast.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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