Philippe Araujo

Some lessons learned from Facebook News Feed

Philippe Araujo on

There are a lot of people out there who don’t know how Facebook, Instagram or even Google work. They may not even care. However, it’s something that is worth your attention as a product manager and it can change the way you look at your newsfeed.

Lessons learned 1

Getting to know exactly how a feed or research works is hard. Big companies mentioned above such as Facebook are changing it almost twice or three times per year. It’s in constant evolution.

To make it simple let say that it integrates who you are, where you are, your interests, your behaviour on the app/website and outside of it.

For example, a hockey fan living in Canada will be returned as a result with the hockey team from Pittsburgh if they are looking for penguins. The same search in the UK will return the animal.

And this is where it makes a big difference, these companies don’t know for sure what you’re looking for, they guessed it through their product and your behaviour.

The algorithm that dictates your search or your feed is based on probability, data science and data mining, which results in a guess and not a real answer.

How does it work for Facebook?

Facebook is a bit different and their equation selects what you have access to on your news feed.
You can find more details on the article from Techcrunch.

Lessons learned 1

Obviously, this is a simplified equation and it doesn’t highlight who you are, what are your actions in general on the network and what are your actions outside of it. They also analyze the cookies you have on your computer, your friends, type of relationships, their interests, the type of interactions you have with them, the data from Instagram or WhatsApp and also from Messenger and way more.

You are basically a mass of data which grows each time you do an action.

You may think that every action that you make is free but for these companies, it’s valuable data and you have a price as a person.

What does it mean for John Doe?

Imagine your journey like this. Someone controls at what time you wake up tell you things based on your past behaviour, you will not be able to see other choices. You will have a choice of clothes only in the colour/style you prefer and your journey will go on like that. In the street, the brands and people that you don’t like will not be there, erased from reality.

You will not be able to see the news about something new happening in another country or this debate between two political people that could increase your knowledge on a topic.

You will not be able to see them, interact with them or even hear them. It’s basically like they were not there. Without you looking for it, it’s like it’s not part of this world.

Someone will be messing with your free will.

This is exactly where it becomes to be dangerous and everyone has a responsibility.

Where are the lessons learned?

The responsibility is shared between multiple people: the content creator, the product/company that provides the product, the product manager who sets the rules of the product/network and the consumer.

  • The creator should not just look for click bait and try to manipulate people “59 percent of links shared on social media has never actually been clicked” link The more trusted you are the more careful you should be with the data you share. There should be no false information in what you are transmitting and if you make a mistake (it happens) you should be transparent, genuine, honest and open about it.
    News, for example, has a big responsibility. With the pressure of the scoop and breaking news, they share headlines and stories before validating it sometimes (fake news).
  • Companies/brands who own the product should try to be impartial in the way they provide the data and the product. They should find a balance and give always the full view in context. If we take again our Facebook example, someone who is a Democrat and read news from Democrats may be interested in news about Republicans. It’s the same for every interest such as music, painting, discovery, adventures and so on. Facebook, by the way, recognized its implication in the fake news problem.
  • Users should try to think about what’s going on behind the scenes and be more curious to have the whole picture about something. I think this part should be taught in schools. Social networks and the way we consume information, data and products will be even more different in the coming years. We should recognize it as a society and try to catch up on it.

Also if someone around you lacks this step back, you have a responsibility too, to help him understand and show him the whole picture.

Why product managers have a responsibility

Building a product based on an algorithm that saves time for the users, bringing them value rapidly is one thing. Also getting rid of the stuff that is of no interest to the user is something great. Messing with the free will and displaying information to people that they are only interested or may be interested in can become a vicious circle.

Lessons learned 3

When product people think about their products, they should always ask themselves the question: “Am I using the data in my possession against my users? Where is the limit in what I am doing?”

When I am thinking about an idea or the vision of my product, I always think something I learned from Gamification. “What are my users going to do to break what I was thinking or what I built this for?”

I believe in my users and I also know how deviant people can be. If you can bring out the best in people, you can also bring out the worst. This is our life and our power as product managers. We have the possibility to make life easier, to make delight people, we can also make them addicts, jealous or depressed.

Google and Gmail ads story

I remember at the beginning of Gmail, people were seeing advertising that seemed somehow linked to the content of their emails. The users soon understood that Google was “reading” their emails. In no time, there was a backlash, people felt it like it was an intrusion in their life. At that time, this tool was built by Sergey Brin and Larry Page and as engineers, they didn’t see the problem in that. They had the data, why couldn’t they do it?

Today, nobody questions why ads on Facebook are exactly the same as the item you just searched on Amazon. It’s just part of our current daily life.

This is where it becomes dangerous when something becomes so insidious that you don’t even realize it.

As a PM, when you are thinking about the overall story and the user experience, what kind of things are you thinking about?

Tell me what you think and join me directly on Twitter at @philnpa

Philippe Araujo London
Phil is one of the co-founder of ReponseIO and works on building the best product ever. Living in London, he enjoys drinking whisky & coffee, discover new places, good food and hit the gym.