It’s been exactly one year since Facebook overhauled its newsfeed algorithm and upended my life. At least, that’s what the data tells me.
The biggest change that Facebook made in April 2015 was to prioritize the content your friends share directly on Facebook, and give less visibility to the content your friends like or comment on from other sites. That makes it ever harder for businesses and organizations to get “organic reach” from people sharing their content, which means they have to pay to get their content into our news feed.
It also makes it harder for us writers to get love for the stories we publish.When I posted a photo montage of weird things I found in a US grocery store to my Facebook wall, it got 24 likes. But when I shared a link to my latest JSTOR Daily post about the robots in our family, it only got 3 likes. Is the algorithm telling me to abandon my writerly dreams by hiding my publications from the feed? Or do people just find Red Velvet Oreos a lot more fascinating than the Amazon Echo?
I started by asking my Facebook friends for their impressions of the new algorithm, but at the urging of my friend and colleague Darren Barefoot, I decided to answer the question with actual data. Thanks to the Facebook data connector created Alex Ross of Tableau Junkie, I was able to pull nine years of Facebook data into Tableau, where I created data visualizations to uncover the will of the algorithm oracle — not just for me, but for anyone who wants to share content on Facebook.
The connector pulled in a grand total of 4,632 posts, which collectively earned more than thirty thousand likes, more than two thousand shares, and over fourteen thousand comments. But there’s been a lot of variation in my use of Facebook over that decade, and I want to know what the algorithm does with my content now. So the visualizations in this post are pulled from a smaller dataset of 1,191 posts, dating from April 19 2014 to April 20, 2016 — giving me a one-year snapshot for life before and after the algorithm change. Of those 1,191 posts, 311 consisted of links shared from external sites: 91 links to my own content, and 220 links to other people’s content. That’s a good start on figuring out how Facebook is or isn’t hiding my work.
Since Facebook doesn’t give us data on page or post views for individual profiles, I’m using likes, shares and comments as a proxy for visibility. That’s not a perfect indicator (as I’ll discuss later), but it’s a start — and since my ultimate concern is with the disparity in likes and engagement across different posts, it’s quite useful to look at likes, shares and comments in their own right.
Let’s start with my initial hypothesis: links I share to Facebook from my own publications elsewhere (like my blog, Medium, the Wall Street Journal or the Harvard Business Review) will get less traction on Facebook than what I share from other people’s sites, or from within the Facebook ecosystem.Based on the content I’ve posted since Facebook changed its algorithm, it looks like external content is doing just fine.
Even under Facebook’s new algorithm, people are more likely to engage with links shared from external sites than with photos and videos posted directly to Facebook.
But that’s a very rough cut, so let me dig a little deeper. After all, “my offsite content” includes a wide range of sources. (I had to manually categorize my 311 links based on what they linked to.) As I writer, I want to know whether Facebook feels differently about the content I publish on my own site from content I publish on independent sites and publications.
Third-party content performs better than content I author myself.
When I separated content that was about me — like media interviews and press clippings — from content that is by me, it turns out that media clips are by far the most-liked content I share. So even though it looked like my own offsite content was doing almost as well as third party content, that effect was largely due to the popularity of my media clips — the content I author, whether it’s on my own site or on publications like Medium and The Wall Street Journal, doesn’t get as much love as the stuff I share from other people.
Much to my surprise, however, all of that external content is still out-performing the content that links to photos or videos on Facebook itself. So let’s see if the same holds true for status updates.
Do links to external content get less engagement than status updates, photos and videos posted to Facebook? No.
Once I discovered that links are still outperforming other kinds of Facebook content, I was tempted to conclude that the oracle had spoken: if I’m not getting a whole lot of love for the writing I post to Facebook, maybe it’s because Facebook’s telling me to give up on writing. But first, I needed to see whether I was crazy for thinking my posts used to do better.
The new Facebook algorithm drives down engagement for shared links.
When I compared the performance of links in the past year with the engagement I got for links in the year before the new algorithm, it’s clear that the new system makes it harder for writers to share their off-site writing. I get 3 fewer likes, 1 fewer share and 1 few comment, on average, for each link I share under the new algorithm.
If Facebook has made it harder to get engagement for links, generally, it makes sense that I’m having more trouble getting attention for my own writing. But is the algorithm change hitting my own links any harder than the links I share from other sites?
Yes, Facebook’s algorithm makes it harder for writers to get attention for our content.
While links to external content continue to outperform the photos and videos I post to Facebook (the “My Facebook content” column), it’s clear that likes and comments have declined for the content I author elsewhere, and then post to Facebook — even though they haven’t changed for photos/videos posted to Facebook, or third party content I post to Facebook.
When it comes to driving shares, however, content I’ve authored on external sites actually seems to perform better under the new algorithm. My media clips, and content from my own sites, seems to get a little more shared now than it did a year ago. And my offsite publications get just about the same amount of shares as they ever did: an average of about 6 shares per post.
One challenge in comparing my life under the new algorithm to my life under the old algorithm is that I’m sharing a lot more of my writing than I used to — now that much more of my work consists of freelance writing, I have more to share! But I’ve increased the volume of third party content I share almost as much I’ve increased my offsite publishing, so I don’t think this is a matter of exhausting people with the volume of my posts (except, perhaps, for myself).
Third party content performs better than authored content, even when it’s on the same topic.
There was one more potential explanation for the number of likes my content gets, compared with the likes for third party links I share: maybe I write about different topics from the ones that get the most enthusiastic response from my Facebook friends. So I looked at four topics I frequently write or post about: family tech, politics, tech culture and workplace technology (including social media and data-driven content). Sure enough, even when I look topic-by-topic, external content outperforms my own.
My theory: Facebook’s algorithm prefers content you haven’t written yourself.
Since my Facebook friends respond enthusiastically to my media clips, I don’t think this is because they’re sick to death of me. And I don’t think that my own stories appeal less than other stories I share. I strongly suspect that they just don’t get into the newsfeed as often as the external content I share.
My hunch is that Facebook’s algorithm is able to parse shared content, and looks at the author name on that content to see if it matches the name of the person sharing it. If so, Facebook recognizes that you’re trying to promote your own content — -and that’s now a privilege Facebook expects us to pay for, just like any organization or brand that’s trying to build its profile.
There’s only one problem.
Writers aren’t brands.
Like any person of faith, I turn to my higher power in moments of crisis. I’m one of those people who think that God is love. But I also know that social media mentions are love. And since Facebook’s algorithm determines which content gets seen, and therefore, liked or shared — in other words, how much love I get — well, that means that Facebook’s algorithm is, for all intents and purposes, my higher power.
And if you’re a writer, the algorithm speaks loud and clear: go get yourself a real job. Because as far as Facebook is concerned, your writing is as much of a commodity as a t-shirt or a bottle of Coke. Forget self-expression: if you want your writing to reach your Facebook friends, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.
Writing after “peak link”.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the olden days — by which I mean 2013 — Facebook actually gave us link-sharers lots of love. That made social media, and Facebook in particular, a great way of building your audience and platform as a writer (or any other type of content creator, for that matter).
But Facebook reached peak link in 2013, at least as far as my link sharing is concerned. That’s when my links got nearly 25 likes per post — far more than the measly ten likes I got for my average status update.
With the advent of the new algorithm, all that’s changed. The deck is now stacked in favor of status updates, or content you’re sharing from other people — not your own.
There are three ways to survive in this brave new world. One is for writers to pay for the privilege of exposure: just as small businesses have reconciled themselves for paying to promote themselves on Yelp, content creators may have to pay for our visibility on social media. Since we’re competing with big brands that are trying to promote their e-books and lead gen projects, however, that’s going to be a tough path for the average indie writer or creative.
A second option is to treat Facebook itself as your platform — or if you’re a photographer, Instagram. Forget creating your own site, or writing on Medium, or even for an established publication. If you want your content to reach your people, and your people are on Facebook, you can post your writing directly to Facebook as a Note. (Or cross-post the content you’ve written elsewhere.) I’m going to experiment with cross-posting, just as I do on Medium, to see if that increases the visibility of my content.
Then there’s door number 3: going back to the good old days of blogging and RSS. The kids out there may not remember this, but just five or ten years ago, steady writers could count on loyal readers actually coming to them. And for those readers who didn’t like making the rounds of their favorite blogs, RSS brought the content to you, through newsreaders like Google Reader (RIP), feedly and Flipboard.
If authors can’t count on reaching their own friends, maybe it’s time for us to revisit that model: to stop living inside Facebook’s walled garden, and to rebuild our own sites and ecosystems for sharing content. But since I’m writing this on Medium, I can’t pretend I’m too optimistic about the return of the fully independent blogger.
What matters is that we keep looking for ways to build and sustain ourselves as writers and content creators—and that we remember that content sharing is about self-expression just as much as it is about marketing. The more we share our experiments, experiences and data not just within Facebook, but on the open web, the more we will free ourselves from the tyranny of the algorithm.