Facebook report highlights news media conundrum

By Michael Beach

Seven West Media WA

Perth, Australia


I’ve been hanging out with Mark Zuckerberg recently in his backyard over beers and ribs. He was dressed in a trademark t-shirt. Me too.

Except I was also ironing my shirt for work 15,000 kilometers away while watching his live video on my phone.

Mark was telling me — and 100,000 other people — that his casual interactive chat was the future of video. Not the press-and-play version that dominates online watching now.

Facebook is relying on several algorithms to understand its users.
Facebook is relying on several algorithms to understand its users.

While watching him take impressive slugs of his beer in between saying goodbye to his daughter, I waited for Mark’s take on the commercial model other than pre-roll ads.

But the smoked ribs were ready before he got to that bit.

A few favoured media companies — particularly ones like BuzzFeed, which spends millions each year with Facebook promoting its posts — are being paid several million greenbacks to produce Facebook Live chats.

The rest of us are experimenting with Live for nothing just so that we keep up engagement levels and immediacy with our audiences.

Coincidentally, shortly before tuning into Mark, I was sipping my morning coffee while reading the latest analysis of how Facebook vastly over-inflated its video views by as much as 80%. Facebook greeted subsequent complaints with a “whassup, bro” shrug of the shoulders.

If a media company fudged their figures like that, the fallout would be huge.

Media companies are measured daily, hourly, and even every minute. It has always been the constant albatross or eagle hovering above TV, newspaper, and radio companies. And those measurements have always been independently audited.

But we know Facebook audits itself, which is obviously not ideal, and it keeps the most important personal and behaviour data for itself.

We spend so much of our personal lives flicking through Facebook and probably too much of our working lives trying to figure how it operates. So it’s always helpful when someone like Greg Piechota sits down to prod, poke, and lift the covers on 1 Hacker Way, Palo Alto, then tells us what he found.

For those of you who don’t have time to read his latest INMA report, here are a couple of observations.

We know the genius of Facebook is it managed to take a community of people that already existed — i.e. us and our friends — and figured out how to connect everyone in a microsecond. And, remarkably, it’s done this in a single newsfeed.

The key to this feed, of course, is the mysterious algorithm that remains as elusive as cracking how they built the pyramids.

Actually, it’s more than one algorithm, as Greg discovered. (Greg obviously didn’t waste his time at Harvard bar-hopping around Boston.)

Apart from being a media junkie, Greg is also a lawyer. So, on behalf of all us, he did some digging into the patent applications from Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook doesn’t make it easy to find its patents. The company tends to file them as employees rather than a company, which means you need to know who is working there. So it is impossible to know whether exactly what Greg found is the latest information or not.

But you take what you can get because the only public information are the occasional company blog updates.

Greg found there is not one algorithm but a family of computer programmes. One ranks the stories to be displayed, another crunches data on interactions, another dissects your online history, and so on.

His detective work also uncovered these gems:

  • When creating a profile of a user, Facebook takes into account whatever information you declared about yourself — age, gender, marital status, education, and employment history. But, importantly, it also tries to infer any gaps in your profile by analysing your posts, interactions, connections, GPS data from your phone, and the IP addresses of the devices you used to login to Facebook.
  • Facebook records all your actions in its network: communication with other users, sharing photos, interactions with apps. It also notes what you read and when and for how long.
  • Facebook captures your other Web activity to add to its personal profile of you. This information is used to help predict your future behaviour.
  • Mostly the News Feed algorithm ranks individual news items rather than publishers’ items. But when selecting stories, Facebook takes into account a “reputation metric.” This probably means it favours news publishers over brands.
  • News items — posts, links, pictures, videos, or polls — are scored and ranked for each and every user individually.
  • The algorithms calculate the probability of you performing different types of interactions with the story and assigns a score for each one. This includes whether comments or shares are more important. The latest guess is that comments have a have a higher ranking than shares.
  • Personal life comes first. The patents confirm the network gives priority to posts from your personal life. That’s why you can’t avoid the endless baby updates.
  • Facebook checks what you have read before updating your feed. That way you don’t keep seeing the same story.

It’s all helpful information because we know Facebook — despite Mark Zuckerberg’s backyard bonhomie — is not the best communicator.

Like the Roman empire, proximity to the centre of Facebook’s universe — i.e. Mark’s backyard — is important.

American companies tend to have a closer relationship with Facebook than other countries.

Like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Facebook is trying to be good. But it doesn’t always come naturally. That’s why Aftenposten had to shame the company into action over its algorithm censoring the napalm girl photo.

And it’s why we normally find out big algorithm changes after they happen (remember June 29 and what that did to your July figures?).

As always, the balancing act for media companies is working out how closely they cuddle up with Facebook. Because it can bite you unexpectedly, just like a cat that gets stroked too much.

Letting Facebook control too much of your distribution comes with the obvious risks: No decent data and the audience can be pulled from under you at any moment with one flick of the algorithm.

But you need to work with Facebook as much as possible because its app is front and centre on everyone’s phone.

So, we’ve seen divergent strategies being pursued, best summed up by two of the big “old media” companies, The New York Times and Washington Post.

The Times prioritises its exclusive relationship with paying readers over giving too much away for free to Facebook. In essence, it uses Facebook as a promotional channel to drag people to its Web site where it then tries to sign them up with a subscription.

The Post, which is now a private company under Jeff Bezos, uses Facebook to keep increasing its audience.

What’s worth remembering, though, is it’s still in its early days.

Facebook is only 13 years old, so it is still finding its feet, especially how it works with media companies. But we know it needs to because people increasingly want to share news stories.

And, above all else, Facebook needs to keep its users happy if it’s going to survive against inevitable competitors.

I thoroughly recommend you take a deeper dive into Greg’s report.

About Michael Beach

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