Facebook: Who’s in Control?

facebook icon designed by dan leechAs librarians, we’re well aware of the impact relevancy algorithms have in search results. This year Facebook’s relevancy ranking – otherwise known as the “Top Stories”  in your news feed  – has come under a lot of public scrutiny. Facebook uses your actions – clicks, likes, comments – to choose what content you see, along with other factors that you have less control over.

What do they prioritize? How do we know what we’re missing? Can we push back and get more personal control? What can this tell us about larger issues like net neutrality? If you’re using Facebook for current awareness, you may not be seeing all the information you want to see.

Knowing how Facebook shows or hides what you see may change how you want to use it, so I’ll also demonstrate where you can find tools to customize your personal settings.

Users As “Test Subjects”?

This spring an article was published showing that for one week in January 2012, staff at Facebook worked with scientists to study “emotional contagion” – by manipulating how many sad or happy stories were shown to a specific group (689,003 users).

Most people weren’t happy to hear that Facebook was experimenting on  its users. In legal circles, the controversy has often focused on what Institutional Review Board (IRB) would approve the use of the Facebook terms of service as a consent form for “research on human subjects,” as discussed in this article in the Atlantic:

User Experiments

Several journalists decided to learn more about the Facebook algorithm by experimenting with how they responded to content in their personal Facebook feeds. Here are two opposite examples:

What did they find? You can annoy your friends very quickly when you start liking everything and they’re notified about your activity. Also it’s very hard to get rid of certain types of content: engagement announcements, new jobs, birthdays, etc.

That’s because Facebook takes anything where people say “congratulations” and makes it “Top News” – which is something marketers have been paying attention to:

This algorithm isn’t going away – Facebook will continue to decide what you need to see most, and there’s only so much you can do to work around that. I’ll demonstrate some of the options they do provide for users next so you can start to make your own experiments and see if Facebook becomes more effective for you.

User Controls

While they may not be easy to find,  Facebook does have help pages to show how to control the visibility of specific posts, the order of posts, who shows up most frequently, etc.

For instance, here’s how you can get rid of the “Top Stories” algorithm temporarily and look for only the most recent posts:


facebook-news-feed-preferencesDon’t see a friend when using the “Most Recent” filter? It may just be that they haven’t been posting updates recently.

You can see who you’re “following” and whether they’re using Facebook recently by going to your News Feed preferences (in the desktop, not mobile version).

You can quickly review who is prioritized in your feed and choose to follow or unfollow friends or pages. But what if you don’t constantly want to be on Facebook, and would rather prioritize which content you see for yourself?

See what you want to see

Lists let you filter Facebook by people or pages so you can review what they’ve posted in one area without worrying about them getting drowned out by other content.

You can find Facebook’s overview of lists in their help pages:

What’s most likely to not appear?

Do you use Facebook to follow news sources? Blogs? If you try to keep up to date by “liking” pages, you should know Facebook has at least two major incentives to not show all the notifications from the pages you like.

One reason for Facebook to not show page content is for their users: if they show too many, you may feel your personal content has been drowned out by “ads.” The other is Facebook’s profit model: if they show fewer updates and pages want to share more, they can charge pages to push more content to you. Which then become more like ads and the cycle begins again…

Pages that aren’t continuously active are often hidden from you, even if you’ve specifically sought them out to follow them. Setting up an interest list lets you override the algorithm.

You can also use the News Feed Preferences (screenshot above) to quickly check which pages you’re “following” from all the pages you’ve liked or unfollow pages that are drowning out other content.

Hide what you want to hide

Ok, great, but what to do when a distant acquaintance is suddenly flooding your feed? Or when you see endless stories about content you don’t care about?

First, you can start by hiding irrelevant posts you don’t want to see any more.

Next, you can check to see if a person is on your “Close Friends” list. They may have been added if you interacted with a number of their posts in the past. You can remove them and still be friends, but you won’t see as many posts.

Next, check to see if you’re “Following” them. Unfollowing someone allows you to remain friends, but hide their content from your news feed.

Money and Marketing

While you may not personally run any Facebook Pages, it’s worth knowing that Facebook’s emphasis on advertising and “promoted posts” fees may make it difficult for smaller pages to connect to users. (A small taste of a world without net neutrality?)

If you’re only seeing big name news sites in your Facebook feed, that is probably partially because they have a lot of content out there and a lot of people who are responding to it (the “organic reach”). But part of it may also be a “pay to play” game that they can afford to participate in.

Does your firm have a Facebook page? Do you have anyone asking you about social media marketing? It’s worth reading articles like these, that examine the impact of recent policy changes:

Use CALL as a test project!

Since CALL isn’t constantly posting new content, our Facebook Page often doesn’t show up in people’s feed even if you’ve “liked” us and we post new content.

Want to be sure to get our updates? You can use “Get Notifications” the same way you can for friends – it’s under the “Liked” menu:


You can also create lists of pages – called “Interest lists”, that give you a quick place to see all updates for pages on that list, if you want to see everything they’ve shared and not just the content Facebook lets through. Here’s one I’ve created for CALL Member (Employer) pages as an example.