The curious case of sharing on Facebook (sometimes it comes with a price)

Nick Bilton on the curious case of sharing on Facebook:

Every Sunday morning, I started sharing my weekly column with this newfound entourage. Those garnered a good response. For example, a column about my 2012 New Year’s resolution to take a break from electronics gathered 535 “likes” and 53 “reshares.” Another, about Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owing me $50 after the company’s public offering, quickly drew 323 likes and 88 reshares.

Since then, my subscribers have grown to number 400,000. Yet now, when I share my column, something different happens. Guess how many people like and reshare the links I post?

If your answer was more than two digits long, you’re wrong.

As a social media manager and researcher and as someone who spends thousands a year on Facebook ads for work, I can confirm that Facebook’s sharing algorithm changes a lot, has been all over the place the past year or so and that paying for ads — even small amounts like $10 — makes a huge difference in engagement and reach. The amounts of engagement that Bilton is seeing normally sounds low, however, and perhaps that is due to his content and not just the algorithm.

You don’t need to study social media to see that pictures, images and memes are what rules Facebook these days. This was not always the case, but in the last few years, sharing links has not gotten the same penetration as sharing photos and other visual content.

I believe this is for two reasons: Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm prioritizes visual content over written, and users prefer visual content or at least are more likely to notice it, click on it, like it and share it. Bilton’s own Facebook page bears this out. He shared a photo of himself with his dog at In-N-Out Burger that received about 30 times the engagement as a recent New York Times story of his. While we can all agree that Bilton’s writing is usually better content than him and his dog eating a cheap burger, Facebook friends and users feel differently, and Facebook’s algorithm prefers his smartphone photos to researched journalism pieces.

We have responded to this changing situation on Facebook by making a push to share more visual content on our Science News Magazine’s Facebook page. We will often share a great photo, image or illustration from a story and then provide a link to it in the caption on Facebook. This does significantly better than just sharing the story alone.

Facebook is always changing its algorithm, and as it currently stands, unless you pay money to sponsor an update that links to a story, you may not be getting great engagement or traffic out of it. The other issue I see with Bilton’s feed is that he doesn’t post that often. Posting daily on Facebook leads to more engagement per post. There is an upper limit to how often you should post to your Facebook page — roughly once every three hours — but Bilton is nowhere near hitting that limit.

Now, as to the paid vs. organic engagement, well that is an issue. This gets to the heart of Facebook versus Twitter. On Twitter, you are normally shown every single tweet from the people you follow in your timeline. On Facebook, you are normally shown only the content that the Facebook algorithm deems the top content in your feed.

The algorithm works as a positive feedback loop. The more often you interact with someone’s content, the more often you see that person’s content and then the more often you will see it again in the future. This has resulted in people seeing updates from a small selection of the people they are friends with on Facebook, and is something that bugs me as I find it too limiting. Facebook users can switch their news feeds to show most recent content instead, similar to a Twitter feed, but this is not the default and few people change this.

I can’t confirm this, but I feel that Facebook switches back this preference for users, as mine always seem to end up back on top stories. In Facebook’s mind, top stories is a great way to show content from strong ties — family and close friends — while drowning out of the noise of some of your weaker ties. I don’t have an issue with prioritizing strong tie content over weak tie content, but I have not liked the mix on Facebook and believe it needs to sprinkle in more random content from my weak tie Facebook friends and pages.

Unfortunately, Facebook followers of journalists is the definition of a very weak tie (it’s not even a two-way tie like a normal Facebook friendship). As long as Facebook shows the top stories algorithm instead of just most recent content like Twitter, people like Bilton are going to continue to see lower engagement than expected.

So, why does paying help this situation? Paying to make sure your content is shown to your followers and friends means that your content will be shown in someone’s news feed even if they have selected top stories and the algorithm would deem you too weak of a tie to show right now. What this is saying to Bilton is that his page is not deemed a top story driver for most of his followers.

Maybe Bilton’s followers would disagree with this and maybe they would prefer a stronger mix of content in their news feeds. I have found my news feed being dominated by a few friends and family with recent changes to the top stories algorithm. The positive feedback loop seems to have run out of control.

I believe that if Bilton started sharing more content and more varied content, with an emphasis on visual content, he would see more engagement per item, even his links to stories. That said, the Facebook algorithm seems to have issues showing variety by focusing too heavily on strong tie content, and I think this hurts journalists and other content creators. I don’t necessarily think this is anything nefarious by Facebook in an attempt to grab cash by encouraging people to pay for ads, and I do agree with the Facebook engineer that he quoted that this is not a good thing for Facebook.

If people want to see Bilton’s content, and they aren’t, that’s not good for anyone.