Facebook Removed The News Feed Algorithm In An Experiment. Then It Gave Up.

New leaked Facebook documents show what happened when Facebook tried to remove feed ranking. It didn't go well.

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Everyone seems to hate Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. Critics want to do away with it, and Congress may strip Facebook’s legal protections for the content it amplifies. Yet only now, after years of speculation, do we have an idea of what Facebook would look like without it. 

In February 2018, a Facebook researcher all but shut off the News Feed ranking algorithm for .05% of Facebook users. “What happens if we delete ranked News Feed?” they asked in an internal report summing up the experiment. Their findings: Without a News Feed algorithm, engagement on Facebook drops significantly, people hide 50% more posts, content from Facebook Groups rises to the top, and — surprisingly — Facebook makes even more money from users scrolling through the News Feed.

The report comes from Frances Haugen’s disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including Big Technology. (Though I joined this consortium on Monday, I’m in favor of its dissolution and the speedy, responsible release of all Haugen’s documents to the public.)

Turning off the News Feed ranking algorithm, the researcher found, led to a worse experience almost across the board. People spent more time scrolling through the News Feed searching for interesting stuff, and saw more advertisements as they went (hence the revenue spike). They hid 50% more posts, indicating they weren’t thrilled with what they were seeing. They saw more Groups content, because Groups is one of the few places on Facebook that remains vibrant. And they saw double the amount of posts from public pages they don’t follow, often because friends commented on those pages. “We reduce the distribution of these posts massively as they seem to be a constant quality compliant,” the researcher said of the public pages.

The experiment was still in progress at the time of the report, but the researcher indicated that things were going poorly. “Things are trending down,” they said in an internal forum, adding a chart showing declining user sessions. Even though the researcher kept the “integrity pass” in place, or the first layer of the algorithm that sorts for integrity ahead of engagement, they said that “integrity bad metrics still shot through the roof.”

Meaningful Social Interactions — the back and forth comments between friends that Facebook optimizes for — also dropped by 20%. And given how angry some of these exchanges made people, that might not be a bad thing. But wiping out all ranked sorting of the News Feed clearly led to other problems, including the integrity issues. And bad actors, you can be sure, would find a way to exploit an algorithm-free Facebook.

Facebook eventually gave up on the idea — the News Feed is still ranked with an algorithm — but the experiment is revealing. It shows just how complex some of Facebook’s issues are, and that trying to solve them with soundbites often comes up short. These complex problems require nuanced answers, drawing from a deep understanding of the issues and attempted solutions. It’s a good thing we now have Facebook’s documents, via Haugen, to guide us.

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Okay, that’s it for today. See you on Thursday!