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BW Businessworld

It’s Facebook In Charge

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As you lean back in a free moment and scroll through your Facebook stream, perhaps stopping to Like or comment on an amusing video here and a beautiful photo there, you probably don’t give a thought to the red-hot dynamite property that News Feed happens to be. Behind the scenes, what’s going on is all sorts of research, all manner of tinkering and tweaking, no end of information-gathering, and a greater and greater reach into users’ lives.
It’s unnerving. Especially when you find you can’t really outrun the changes that are made to the social networking platform that is bigger than the population of many countries now. Only recently, critics were up in arms over the idea that the news stories users see on their feed are filtered by Facebook’s algorithms. A research study to this effect appeared in Science magazine in which the particular focus was exposure to others’ political views. Does the News Feed in fact steer users towards others who share the same political views? Or does it leave an open playing field for users to encounter varied views? Facebook says users get to see what they seek. But even that is a little worrying as more of what you sought is pushed on you than you bargained for. Whatever is happening in the innards of the News Feed’s workings, it’s pretty obvious that users don’t see updates from some of their “friends” for ages, even without having tampered with preferences. Just how much control does Facebook have over our lives?
Whatever the control, it’s about to go up many notches as Facebook launches Instant Articles, a programme that lets publishers put stories into the News Feed. Not only does content look good, articles are supposed to load instantly: something much needed with readers’ attention spans being much shorter. Instant Articles interaction will include being able to comment online on parts of articles, play video by tilting the phone, and more. Users will get everything in one place — at least for the publishers who signed up, and that includes The New York Times, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Guardian, BBC News, The Atlantic and a few others. More will join up in the coming weeks, for sure.
For publishers, there’s an experience to offer readers beyond what they’ve managed. They get a wider reach than they could have achieved, given Facebook’s massive user base. And they even get to keep their ad revenue, from ads that feature with their content. Publishers also get to retain their branding by using easy tools that create a cover for the content. On top of that, they provide detailed analytics to the publishing companies on how stories are being viewed.
But the worrying part is obvious. Facebook is changing things around practically all the time. Publishers could so easily find they have the tables turned on them with some change that Facebook has made. Already, it’s being thought that they would be slaves to what Facebook wants to do, with all control for what goes into Instant Articles having been vested with the social giant. With the quality of content within Facebook invariably going up (an assumption many are making), will the News Feed cannibalise publishers’ own websites and apps? With more to do on Facebook, just how much more time will users spend on the social networking site? It’s a win for Facebook as it locks its users in some more. And takes charge.
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 15-06-2015)

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mala bhargava magazine facebook magazine 15 june 2015

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