Sunday, May 18, 2014

What the General Public Should Learn from Facebook’s "Reach-Gate" Scandal on Madison Avenue

For many years in online advertising circles, it was accepted as a truism that Facebook is “just a platform.” Unlike a publisher, a platform has no say in what content flows through its pipes. 

That idea was always flawed as it overlooked Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm which displays the content it deems interesting for its users, while burying that which it deems less so. As Josh Constine from TechCrunch put it at the time: Facebook controls the news feed like an editor-in-chief controls a newspaper’s front page. Facebook did have one key constraint: it would only display content that was published (or engaged with) by someone in a user’s network. The algorithm decided which piece of content to display, but it could only choose from a user’s self-selected network.*

Despite the existence of an algorithm designed to curate content, the idea that Facebook was a neutral platform persisted in ad land. Algorithms enjoy a certain inscrutable air on Madison Avenue. They are magical black boxes out of which billion-dollar businesses bloom. Years earlier, Google’s algorithm accomplished the God-like task of “organizing the world’s information”, if Facebook’s algorithm could do something equally impressive in “social”, it was hardly Madison Avenue’s place to question it. 

Then of course, the "Reach-gate" scandal happened and the myth that Facebook was a neutral platform vanished along with organic reach. Facebook insists the change to the algorithm addressed user experience, and not revenue goals, but nevertheless, Madison Avenue learned a hard lesson: Facebook and its algorithm should be viewed with a healthy skepticism. (Overheard predicted the tweak to organic reach 2 years before.)

Now, it may be time for the general public to learn the same lesson. 

The Boston Globe is reporting that Facebook is testing a “related articles” feature that promotes content that it deems relevant for its users. Sound familiar? Except this time, Facebook seems willing to introduce what I’ll call “foreign content”, in other words, content that was never published or engaged with by anyone in your network. While this could certainly be testing ground for an Outbrain-like ad product, this feature has broader implications. 


That Facebook can control what content shows up in the newsfeed gives it power that transcends advertising and is rooted in social and political influence. Facebook is behaving like a publisher, yet it is still viewed as an impartial platform. We can give Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt that his ambition is to improve user experience and not advance his own political or social agenda. Still, we must combat the myth of the neutral platform and recognize Facebook for what it is, or at least, what it could be. 

At last count, Pew reported that 30% of Americans get their news from Facebook. Now, it seems that “getting your news from Facebook” has a literal interpretation that Pew never intended.

*There is a notable exception to this rule: beginning in 2012, advertisers could pay to insert their own content into a user’s newsfeed without being part of the user’s network.

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