How the Facebook News Feed Algorithm Shapes Your Friendships

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.