Complexity, Mystery and Improvement: A Quick Look at the Facebook Algorithms

“If Youtube has a team of highly trained monkeys on technical support, it only makes sense for Facebook to have a similarly dedicated group working onthe algorithms”

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Facebook is, without a doubt, one of the most successful social networks of all time. However, while it could be seen as the clear leader of social networks at the turn of the decade (and remains the most-used network to this day), competition has gotten stronger in recent times, as seen in the popularity of sites like Instagram and Snapchat. That being said, the people at Facebook are continually at work in modifying Facebook’s news feed algorithms to provide the best possible experience for users (and in turn, keep their attention from other social networks). Will Oremus, Senior Technology Writer of Slate, had the opportunity to visit Facebook’s news feed team, and share discuss his experience in a 2016 Slate article. In short: The findings are fascinating and eye-opening…

One thing that immediately stood out to me was the secrecy of what exactly goes into Facebook’s algorithms. I can understand some security is warranted to prevent others from copying the formula, but Facebook seems to go to measures similar to protecting the 11 herbs and spices of KFC or the contents of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase in order to keep anything too important from getting leaked. Nonetheless, one thing people can infer about Facebook’s news feed algorithms is its complexity. One member of the news feed team says there are hundreds of variables that go into the algorithm, all of which to provide premier positioning for the posts that are “most likely to make you laugh, cry, smile, like, share, or comment.” Indeed, Oremus suggests that it may be better to refer to the algorithm less as a singular entity, and more as a collection of smaller algorithms that are put together. Regardless, while some of the more explicit information about it remains unknown to the public, Facebook’s news feed algorithm is a complex animal, and an animal that’s dynamic.

As previously mentioned, behind Facebook’s algorithm (or algorithms, if you will) is a team whose job is to improve the algorithm. If YouTube has a team of highly trained monkeys on technical support, it only makes sense for Facebook to have a similarly dedicated group working on the algorithms. However, one thing Oremus mentions is the fact that the people behind the algorithms are just that: People. It’s important to remember people aren’t perfect, and neither are the algorithms they develop. “Sometimes” is a word that has been used to describe the success of the algorithms, and “sometimes” implies an evident room for improvement. In my own Facebook activity, something I’ve recently noticed about the news feed is that people’s pictures from an album are being divided into individual posts with individual pictures instead of appearing as a cumulative post with the album. These individual posts have the potential to take up considerable space on my news feed (regardless of if that’s the intention of the poster), and is something I hope will be changed in the future. Thankfully, Oremus’ article makes it appear that Facebook has a team in place who is working to resolve issues like these and further add to the quality of the news feed. Examples Oremus brings up include the abilities to see more or less of a topic, unfollow a person and react to posts beyond a simple like (something I find myself doing more than I expected I would upon its introduction); as well as an interesting case of Facebook responding to people who frequently hide posts. Overall, a room for improvement exists in the algorithms of Facebook’s news feed, but it’s nice to know there’s a group of people who are set on reducing that room.

In conclusion, Facebook’s algorithms for the news feed are laced in mystery and complexity, and can potentially be described as works in progress. It’s very likely that the news feed team has made changes to the algorithms since the article’s release, seeing as it was posted in January of 2016. Personally, Facebook remains my most-used social network, so I’ll be interested to see future developments in Facebook’s algorithms and whether or not Facebook can retain its dominance in the face of rising competition. Perhaps it’ll be something to like, comment and share about.

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