The Algorithm

I opened Slate’s article, Who Controls Your Facebook Feed, and chuckled when I got to the second paragraph.

…according to a closely guarded and constantly shifting formula, Facebook’s news feed algorithm ranks them all, in what it believes to be the precise order of how likely you are to find each post worthwhile. Most users will only ever see the top few hundred. No one outside Facebook knows for sure how it does this, and no one inside the company will tell you.

The Algorithm always ends up being a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Its controllers are almost never willing, and rarely able to articulate exactly how its magic works. It is a secret agent with a license to kill a business based on what it decides to show or hide. An entire industry is devoted to empirically discovering and exploiting its biases, bugs and quirks.

Will Oremus does not bury the lede in this story, which probably reflects the sentiment of many Facebook users.

The algorithm’s rankings correspond to the user’s preferences “sometimes,” Facebook acknowledges, declining to get more specific.”

To improve it, as we learn in the paragraphs that follow, Facebook is employing humans in the form of “feed quality panels” and “every news feed tweak must undergo a battery of tests among different types of audiences, and be judged on a variety of different metrics.” In short, to get better it needs human input. But what about me? Can I participate as a live “feed quality panel” of one?

Algorithm Control Facebook is increasingly giving users the ability to fine-tune their own feeds—a level of control it had long resisted as onerous and unnecessary.

“Onerous and unnecessary?” I laughed again. I’ve been shouldering the burden of giving Facebook’s algorithm “hints” and I can’t tell if the result is better or not. Other than the heavy-handed options like “unfollow,” the rest feel like a placebo because there’s no feedback. If I ask to “see fewer posts like…” how can I judge the effect? I just have to wait and see. Why is this?

In addition to possible business reasons, there’s a technical one. When you view your feed on Facebook, a timeline on Twitter, or just about any other page on a site that has scaled to millions, or billions of users, what you’re seeing was previously generated before you clicked. In developer-speak, the view was created at write-time rather than query-time. The upside is consistently fast, reliable page loads that require minimal on-demand processing. The downside is that Facebook (and now Twitter?) must divine what to show you based on heuristics, clicks, focus groups and sponsorships; hence, The Algorithm.

Mar 9, 2015 : No Hubbub - Cloud PubSub »