Monday, September 1, 2014 at 7:49 AM

Facebook's algorithm isn't news

I haven't been using Facebook since the beginning, so I can't tell when they added the algorithm. My guess is that when they got the news feed, it had an algorithm. It was certainly there in January 2012 when I wrote about it in this piece:

Another example to consider is Facebook. No one outside Facebook understands how their algorithm works. How do they decide which stories you'll see and which aren't important enough for you? I suspect it has something to do with what will make them money, both short-term and long-term. How they decide is completely opaque.

Facebook's algorithm is not news. And it's not bad. Truth is every way of accessing the news has an algorithm. Before the Internet, what was on the front page of the NYT was determined by a human-implemented algorithm, that was in no way transparent. We had to trust the editors of the paper the same way users of Facebook trust them.

No algorithm is an algorithm

I use a river of news to read the sources I consider interesting and/or authoritative. There the algorithm is simple reverse chronology. I suspect this is the algorithm most news users want. No filtering, no deciding what's important. Just the news as it comes in. The software for this is open source, is easy for anyone with a bit of programming experience to set up. They should run this at the Guardian and Columbia University. Setting up a river should be required for any journalism student today, imho.

But the river is an algorithm too, a simple one. Who decides what feeds go into the river? I do, no one else. If you read my river, you have to trust me to have put the "right" sources into the mix.

Is Facebook really for news?

Also, Facebook has never claimed, as far as I know, that it's a good place to go to keep up on the news. I don't think that will always be true. But complaining how Facebook determines what's news is not that different from complaining about how your barber or hair stylist does it. What you're getting is what your friends think is important, mixed with what a for-profit company thinks is.

The reporters were lazy

The thing that's absolutely infuriating is that the reporters and journalism professors who complain, people who are supposed to be watching this for us, weren't paying attention. They invite Dick Costolo to keynote their conferences, to tell them how wonderful their futures were, to tell them what they wanted to hear, of course. He never said he wouldn't compete. If you go back and read his words carefully, he always had an out. Things like "It's not in our interest to compete," or "we have no intention, at this time, to compete."

I know what it's like to hear what you want because I'm a software developer who has listened to platform vendor pitches hoping, believing, desperately they didn't really want to eat my lunch. But over time I've learned they always do want it and eventually try to take it. The good news is they don't always succeed.

Twitter is competition for the news industry

The news industry should have seen Twitter for what it was, competition. And reacted the way they do to competitors -- compete! There should have been a NY Times river, a Guardian river, a CNN one, a Tow Center river. Or maybe they should have done something like Hulu where they band together and compete. Why didn't Rupert Murdoch see this coming? Did he think he'd be able to buy Twitter? Maybe he can. You, reporters, and thought leaders, should have been thinking this way. If you read my blog over the years, you would have.

I have no sympathy for sour grapes at this time. The news industry is changing rapidly, in ways that must be very disconcerting to reporters and professors. But the change was gradual, and foreseeable. Now the tech industry controls what we see. We have to do the best we can with what we have. And don't think there's anything you can do about the algorithms, because there isn't. They have always been there, and always will.

Bottom line: quit complaining, get off your butts, compete.

Last built: Sun, Mar 22, 2015 at 5:51 PM

By Dave Winer, Monday, September 1, 2014 at 7:49 AM. This aggression will not stand.