A lot of people are complaining about Facebook's News Feed, saying that the social network has tweaked it to give prominent placement to paid advertisements.
Get ready for more complaints—because Facebook is changing everything again this Thursday.
There's something to the complaints. Facebook didn't always have ads in its News Feed, the central stream of updates from friends and brands that appears when you log into the site.
So by definition, any placement given over to ads is taking up space that used to be occupied by a free post.
What a lot of people don't realize is that going back to the original creation of the News Feed in 2006, there's been a secret algorithm that decides what you see and don't see. It has always shown people a small slice of all the material your friends and the brands and celebrities you follow post on Facebook.
(A side note: A lot of people refer to this system as "EdgeRank"—an analogy to Google's PageRank algorithm for ranking Web search results. Facebook engineer Phil Zigoris told Inc. last year that the company "[doesn't] have a product or system called EdgeRank," and you don't actually see any references to EdgeRank Better to just call it the News Feed algorithm.)
People first started talking about this phenomenon last summer, when tech investor Mark Cuban railed about how his posts weren't reaching as many fans. New York Times writer Nick Bilton stirred up the debate again with a column this weekend, saying he'd seen a major drop in reactions to his stories on Facebook.
In both cases, Facebook strongly denied there was any kind of pay-to-play scheme.
Again, given that human attention is limited, we think that's slightly disingenuous: Since you can pay Facebook to promote the reach of your posts, those are naturally going to displace some unpaid posts.
But that slight displacement can't possibly account for the dramatic drops Cuban and Bilton complained about.
Far more likely: As Facebook kept tweaking the News Feed algorithm, the things that used to work well for them stopped working. And who likes to have to constantly learn new tricks?
Facebook is announcing a new look for the News Feed on Thursday, one that's likely to favor photos and videos. And guess what?
That's going to once again disrupt the established patterns and habits people have learned to get their content to go viral on Facebook. It's probably going to be hardest on journalists who produce a lot of textual content, and great for people who express themselves visually. And, yes, you'll almost certainly be able to pay Facebook to get your posts to be more prominent.
So expect controversy to be the one feature of News Feed that's not changing Thursday.
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