A professor at ASU brought this Washington Post article to my attention, How Facebook and Twitter control what you see about Ferguson. To summarize, social media users have noticed that whereas their Twitter feeds are full to bursting with updates from St. Louis, Facebook news feeds remain stagnantly focused on the (pardon me, now cliché) ALS ice bucket challenge.
As Sullivan states,
Your Twitter feed isn’t controlled by an algorithm. You see the tweets of people you follow in real time.
In short, this is very true. Your news feed is arranged by a Facebook-specific algorithm called EdgeRank, which rests on three key factors:
- Affinity: Facebook's understanding of your closeness to your friends, based on interactions and, excuse me, stalking time (i.e., checking photos, status updates, wall posts);
- Content weight: Facebook's predicted importance of different types of status updates, which also varies based on your own perceived importance of each update -- if you tend to Like or comment on others' relationship status updates, you're more likely to see a stream of diamond rings than a user who tends to Like job/education changes;
- Time: Yes, more recent posts are weighted toward the top, but only within a few days' time.
For more information, please see Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble, pp. 37-38.
But when it comes to the distinction between Ferguson and buckets of ice-water, this doesn't sound too relevant, does it?
I think many other factors are at play here. Sullivan posits that,
Ars Technica’s Casey Johnson suggested Facebook’s algorithm also weeds out controversial content — racially charged protests, perhaps? — from users’ news feeds.
I'm not going to jump to that conclusion quite so readily; we have to keep in mind that Facebook is largely run by social psychologists who have no problem with stereotypes, prejudice, and controversial content. Our field was practically founded on controversial content.
No, I think Facebook is just as aware of predictors of virality as are marketing scholars. Virality, here, means "the tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another" (thanks, Google).
Marketing professor Jonah Berger has outlined six general predictors of content virality in the digital age, which he abbreviates STEPPS:
- Social currency: we share things that make us look good
- Triggers: easily memorable information
- Emotion: we share what we care about
- Public: we tend to imitate what others are doing (this is also in line with a few Cialdini principles)
- Practical value: we share what we think will be useful for others
- Stories: it's easier, and more interesting, to share stories rather than facts
I'm going to focus specifically on the first and fourth here, Social Currency and Public. No one wants to be that person who doesn't step up to an ALS challenge that has been made public for all the world (read: your 500+ Facebook friends) to see. What's more, pouring a bucket of ice water makes you seem like a caring, ALS-knowledgable human being (said nobody ever).
And so that one ALS-knowledgable friend shared it with three nominees, who shared with another three or four, and the contagion spreads exponentially. Before we know it, we're drawing on the fourth STEPPS here -- Public. Everyone else is doing it, and so must we.
In the meantime, St. Louis is in turmoil, and no one is any the wiser. For one, the topic is a downer, and Facebook is the land of mythical razzle-dazzle unicorns where everyone seems so perfectly content in their lives. No one wants to be that person who posts negative information amidst others' updates about parties, vacations, promotions, and expected babies.
For another, there are few -- far, far too many in America, but still few -- cases quite like Ferguson's. In the past, we've Liked or commented on posts about mass shootings, bombings, and other societal atrocities. We've commiserated over the destruction of hurricanes and earthquakes, genocides and wars. Facebook may know that we care about these disasters, but Ferguson? It's not necessarily that it's negative and controversial, it's that it's negative and novel.
In recent years, more than half of Facebook and Twitter users exclusively use social media as a news source. Unfortunately, this decision can have dire consequences -- no news source "tells it like it is," and Facebook is not an exception to this rule.
Note: If interested in a clean and user-friendly app for news delivery on topics you choose, check out Flipboard.