On Facebook, as most users probably know by now, what you see in your news feed isn’t a strict chronological listing of what your friends are posting, but is determined by a mysterious, all-powerful algorithm that can be manipulated at will by the social-media giant’s coders. Now there are rumors that Twitter might adopt a similar system, and Zeynep Tufekci makes a smart argument in an essay on Medium about why that would be bad.
While the whole thing is interesting and very much worth a read, one part jumped out at me:
Algorithms are meant to be gamed — my Facebook friends have now taken to posting faux “congratulations” to messages they want to push to the top of everyone’s feeds, because Facebook’s algorithm pushes such posts with the phrase “congratulations” in the comments to top of your feed. Recently, a clever friend of mine asked to be faux congratulated on her sale of used camera equipment. Sure enough! Her network reported that it stayed on top of everyone’s feed for days.
This makes perfect sense when you think about the goal of Facebook’s algorithm: basically, to anticipate which content is most likely to elicit an emotional response that will lead to comments, “likes,” and shares. There’s limited real estate in the news feed, after all, so if you’re Facebook and you’re trying to maximize the number of user clicks, why clutter this space with dud posts?
And congratulations is a pretty solid sign of good content from a click perspective. If you asked a bunch of random people on the street to come up with a list of words that tend to be associated with news of big, emotionally charged events, it would be right near the top. Facebook knows human psychology.
Surely if Facebook notices that every other post contains the word congratulations tomorrow, it will tweak its algorithm accordingly — if algorithms can be gamed, they can also be counter-gamed — but in the meantime, if you’re desperate for as many people as possible to see that adorable photo of your cat, you should post it with words like Congratulations, Buttons, on another busy day lounging on my laptop as it charges.