Is Facebook's latest News Feed algorithm really intended to save us from ourselves?

Facebook | AllThingsD | BuzzFeed | Forbes

News that Facebook is altering its News Feed algorithm to put more "high quality content" in front of users has publishers fretting for good reason. News Feed changes are often complicated, rarely transparent and always nerve-racking considering the impact of Facebook referrals on site traffic.

The latest change should be particularly worrisome for news sites less focused on in-depth news than on the click bait increasingly flooding the site, according to an AllThingsD interview with News Feed manager Lars Backstrom:

Are you paying attention to the source of the content? Or is it solely the type of content?

Right now, it’s mostly oriented around the source. As we refine our approaches, we’ll start distinguishing more and more between different types of content. But, for right now, when we think about how we identify “high quality,” it’s mostly at the source level.

So something that comes from publisher X, you might consider high quality, and if it comes from publisher Y, it’s low quality?


Let's put the New Yorker in column X, and BuzzFeed in column Y. It's no surprise that Facebook users say in surveys that they get more value from, say, a George Packer piece debating Syria strikes than from 17 Animals That Are Not OK With Sweater Weather. But, as AllThingsD's Peter Kafka notes, actions speak louder than words. Users are still clicking on silly stuff, and about one-third of BuzzFeed's referrals and more than one-half of Upworthy's referrals arrive via Facebook. (Upworthy might be a better candidate for column Y, as any blind downgrading of Buzzfeed URLs in the Facebook algorithm would affect its more thoughtful longform stories, too.)

It's hard to swallow the notion that it makes good business sense for Facebook to restrict the flow of clickbait and emphasize "high quality" news articles — especially considering Facebook's youngster problem (and it seems unlikely that smartening the site up is a play to better serve old people). Grocery shoppers lament buying Oreos, but Walmart keeps stocking them.

So does Facebook really think people will use it more if it offers more serious news? Does Facebook feel some sort of civic responsibility to get people to eat more vegetables? Or is there something else going on here?

The Facebook announcement itself might contain a hint:

Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports team or shared interests, to the latest meme. Starting soon, we’ll be doing a better job of distinguishing between a high quality article on a website versus a meme photo hosted somewhere other than Facebook when people click on those stories on mobile.

(Emphasis mine.)

Maybe Facebook is hoping to force these "virality mills" (as Jeff Bercovici at Forbes called them) to peddle product on Facebook itself rather than use it just as a referral platform. If the new News Feed algorithm penalizes publishers for linking out to low quality content, will publishers experiment with posting more of that content directly to Facebook?

Facebook certainly should see Upworthy and the like as competition in a way that the Washington Post clearly isn't, especially considering many viral storyforms — a video or photo and two or three grafs of snark — can just as easily be published on the social media giant's servers. Facebook directs millions of eyeballs to Upworthy and BuzzFeed every week, so if it incentivizes click-baiters to post more bait on-site, maybe Facebook can have its 23 Most YOLO Pastas Of 2013 and eat them, too.

Related: Is viral content the next bubble?

  • Sam Kirkland

    Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor, where he helped launch digital magazines and ebooks in addition to other web duties.


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