I once read an interesting book by Charles Duhigg which explores how habits and addictions are formed. First there is the cue, which triggers an action, which results in a reward. Unfortunately, it appears the fine software engineers at Facebook have read the same research as Mr Duhigg, if not his book. Observe yourself next time you feel bored (cue), open Facebook on your browser/app (action), and you are confronted with those nice red notifications we have all been trained to love (reward).
Casino owners and game makers have figured out what works even better than rewards at creating addiction: random rewards. Facebook is on top of this as well. You never know what you will find when you open the app. Maybe someone commented on your witty post. Maybe someone liked your latest selfie for some weird reason, despite the fact that it looks just like the 100 other selfies you’ve posted in the past.
But wait, you might be thinking. The fine people at the big blue company don’t control who likes or comments on your posts.
Actually, they do. Or rather, the Algorithm does. It is so powerful I believe it would be disrespectful to call it an algorithm without capitalization as if it’s just another mathematical formula. Late last week, Facebook confirmed over 2 billion people use the service every month. That’s almost a third of the world’s population for the Algorithm to play with every 30 days.
So what’s the deal with this Algorithm? It determines which content you see on Facebook. It determines which of your friends see your posts, and when they do. By so doing, it can show your post to your friends at different times, thus ensuring the ‘likes’ you get are spread out over time to make you spend as much time as possible on the site.
I can’t say I have for certain caught Facebook doing that in, say, the manner that I caught Twitter showing me old posts and pretending they had just been retweeted by people I follow. What I can say beyond doubt is the Algorithm exists to mix things up to whatever effect turns a profit for the big blue company. It would be a lame algorithm if it wasn’t spreading out the impressions.
So what happens if the Algorithm has nothing to show you? I decided to find out by unfollowing all my friends on Facebook (sorry friends, I can’t see your selfies now). You would think I would stop seeing notifications, but nope. For some reason, I started getting notifications about people commenting on a post on a page I have liked. So naturally, I unliked said page.
Then the Algorithm got desperate. The last time I checked Facebook, I got a notification about someone commenting on a picture posted by some girl. I am not particularly close friends with the girl, we have only communicated once on Facebook and never met in person. Why does Facebook think I care if someone comments on her photo?
Nice try Al.