Interesting read from Slate.com about the infamous and simultaneously secretive Facebook newsfeed algorithm. The author gets a brief tour and one on one time with some of the algorithm engineers.
For the same reason—Facebook’s fierce protection of trade secrets—Alison cannot tell me much about the actual code that composes the news feed algorithm. He can, however, tell me what it does, and why—and why it’s always changing. He starts, as engineers often do, at the whiteboard.
Random guessing is fine when you’ve got nothing to lose, Alison says. But let’s say there was a lot of money riding on my basketball predictions, and I was making them millions of times a day. I’d need a more systematic approach. “You’re probably going to start by looking at historical data,” he says. “You’re going to look at the win-loss record of each team, the records of the individual players, who’s injured, who’s on a streak.” Maybe you’ll take into account environmental factors: Who’s the home team? Is one squad playing on short rest, or after a cross-country flight? Your prediction algorithm might incorporate all of these factors and more.
If you've ever been curious about how your newsfeed populates then this article is for you. I found the history behind of the growth the algorithm fascinating. Especially when the Facebook engineers had to start assuming that "likes" weren't always an actual "like".
But those interactions are only a rough proxy for what Facebook users actually want. What if people “like” posts that they don’t really like, or click on stories that turn out to be unsatisfying? The result could be a news feed that optimizes for virality, rather than quality—one that feeds users a steady diet of candy, leaving them dizzy and a little nauseated, liking things left and right but gradually growing to hate the whole silly game. How do you optimize against that?
Sometimes I do wish my own feed was just a timeline like Twitter but honestly I don't use Facebook enough to really know the difference if it was. For now I think I'll just go with what the magical algorithm says I'll like.