Of shoes and Facebook: Are you smarter than an algorithm?

That's the Bow My Darling shoe, btw… because I know someone will ask.
That's the Bow My Darling shoe, btw… because I know someone will ask.
I've written a lot over the years about my challenges with Facebook. For personal communications, I opted out completely three years ago. Using Facebook for business, I've wrestled with people trying to use it as an RSS feed, and the challenges of people commenting on Facebook instead of the blogs.

As the years have worn on, the reality is this: Facebook drives a massive portion of the Offbeat Empire's traffic. Facebook is responsible for Offbeat Families becoming MORE popular since I shut it down. Facebook brings in almost as many new readers as Google does. Basically, I'm stuck with Facebook… and as I've adapted to that reality, I've started realizing that there are some ways in which its alogirithms are awesome. Shoes, for instance.

A few months ago, I asked readers how they felt about how many Facebook posts they saw from Offbeat Bride. Over 80% felt like they saw just the right amount of posts from us, and you know what that's indicative of? Not that we're posting just the right amount, but that Facebook is SHOWING you just the right amount. At this point, Offbeat Bride's Facebook page posts as many as 8 times a day (including these ridiculous SHOES AT 2 shoe posts I've started doing), but you only see all those posts if Facebook understands that you WANT to see all those posts. If you consistently ignore them? You see maybe only 1 post a day, or none. In other words: Facebook's algorithms are smarter than we could ever be.

…And they're getting smarter. From an article in Slate:

When users click on a link in their news feed, Cathcart says, Facebook looks very carefully at what happens next. "If you're someone who, every time you see an article from the New York Times, you not only click on it, but go offsite and stay offsite for a while before you come back, we can probably infer that you in particular find articles from the New York Times more relevant"—even if you don't actually hit "like" on them.

At the same time, Facebook has begun more carefully differentiating between the likes that a post gets before users click on it and the ones it gets after they've clicked. A lot of people might be quick to hit the like button on a post based solely on a headline or teaser that panders to their political sensibilities. But if very few of them go on to like or share the article after they've read it, that might indicate to Facebook that the story didn't deliver.

As much as we'd like to think we could do a better job than the algorithms, the fact is most of us don't have time to sift through 1,500 posts on a daily basis. And so, even as we resent Facebook's paternalism, we keep coming back to it.

And just maybe, if Facebook keeps getting better at figuring out what we actually like as opposed to what we just Facebook-like, we'll start to actually like Facebook itself a little more than we do today.

As much as Facebook has frustrated the fuck out of me over the years, I cannot deny that its algorithms are very, very clever.

If you click on the "SHOES AT 2" posts that I've started doing on Facebook every day, and you spend some time off Facebook browsing those shoes? Facebook is going to show you more of those posts.

If you're like "WTF, a shoe post every freaking day? WHY GOD WHY," (an opinion I totally respect!) then Facebook isn't going to show you those posts at all. For me as a publisher, I get to spend less time fretting "Will readers like these posts?" and more time saying "Those that like them, will see them. Those that don't, probably won't." It's oddly freeing.

I don't have to try to read y'all's minds as much… Facebook does it for me.

Weird, right?

  1. I have gotten into the habit of clicking "like" on every post I see from an Offbeat Empire site to help support… readership? Keeping the site alive? I honestly have no idea what it's supporting specifically, I was just under the impression it was good. So does this mean my clicking of "like" has less of an impact if I don't read the specific article? Am I actually helping out the Offbeat Empire by clicking "like" all the time?

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    • My understanding is that Likes are still great — and that Facebook's algorithms are getting even smarter, and measuring even more engagement factors. I don't think Likes will ever stop counting as one measure of engagement… but now Facebook is improving the factors of sharing, commenting, clicking, and time spent reading.

      That said, readers should never feel obligated to engage with our content in unnatural ways. If you enjoy the stuff we post, interact with it in the ways that feel right to you. Algorithms are slippery and weird, and I'd hate for you to be diligently doing something that may or may not have any impact. Ultimately, do what feels natural to you. Facebook is getting creepily smart enough to figure you out.

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      • I'm an avid Empire reader and fan of your super smarts, Ariel. So I am DELIGHTED to see an article that "gets" what FB is doing and why.

        Half of my job as a Social Media Mixologist 🙂 and uber-algorithm geek is helping small business owners UN-learn all the panicky, whiny crap the "experts" fill their inboxes and empty their wallets with.

        Carry on, you genius, you!

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        • Thanks for the sweet words! Yeah, I got several emails from concerned readers who were hearing all the rumblings about ENCROACHING FACEBOOK DOOOOOM, so I wanted to reassure everyone that at least the way I use Facebook for the Empire's pages, the Facebook algorithms are not only NOT doom, but doing decently and even making my job easier in some ways.

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        • Even though I've yet to see a job posting with the exact phrase "Social Media Mixologist", I think it's the best job title ever. 😀

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    • I'm the same way. I'll Like most things from the Empire that I come across because 1, I genuinely do enjoy most of the content even when it's not relevant to me personally, and 2 because it exposes the Offbeat Empire to my friends. I walked past my dude while he was on facebook last week and saw an Offbeat Home & Life post that I'd Liked on his feed as he scrolled. So it's nice to know that it will suggest to my friends, "Hey, Jess liked this thing. Maybe you should check it out!"

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      • Yes, this! I am very particular with what I will "like" on my Newsfeed because I know sometimes other people can see it, and I don't normally want to bombard their Newsfeed with things I like. The Offbeat Empire is one of the exceptions to this rule. Like you said, if it doesn't apply to me/resonate with me, chances are it will to someone I know. And if I know for sure someone will like it, I by all means share it.

        I like to think of it as making the internet more awesome and less drama-filled, one click at a time!

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  2. While I admit that it's clever, I still find it kind of annoying- I'd rather choose what I want to ignore than have them decide for me. What if I ignore tons and tones of Shoe posts because I'm pretty good on shoes, but then one day, you post the SHOES OF MY DREAMS and I don't see them because Facebook decided I wasn't interested? D-: I'd rather they let me TELL them "don't show me this kinda shit" instead of just deciding I wasn't "into" it enough.

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    • Relatedly, I've noticed that it doesn't show me any posts from certain people I know, because I guess it decided that I don't care about them… when actually, I totally do, I just happen to have not commented that much. :-/

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  3. I LOVE SHOES AT 2.

    That's really all I had to say.

    Oh, also, to Facebook: you're creepy and weird but I can't quit you!

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  4. The fact that people can create algorithms that do this is pretty mind boggling to me.

    Once I read an article talking about Target's algorithms. The article said that our shopping habits rarely change. They typically only change at big life events (graduations, weddings, babies). Target wants to "target" (har har XD) those times in our lives, to alter our shopping habits. Problem is, if they target people AFTER the life event happens, it is ineffective. They have to figure out when you (the customer) is going to have a life change, BEFORE it happens. Apparently their algorithm is very effective at figuring it out, and, many times, Target knows when something big is going to happen in your life, before you do. It's a bit frightening and fascinating, at the same time.

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    • Yeah, I've definitely started recognizing the places where the algorithms are smarter than me. Facebook and AddThis are just two examples of where the machines often know better than I do.

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  5. I don't read OBE on Facebook, but I really liked that Slate article, and I'm glad that's the one you quoted. I often read news articles about the tweaks in Facebook's algorithms and whatnot because it interests me, and that article from Slate really stood out as having clear information from Facebook about what is going on. Good choice!

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