Friday, 19 July 2013

Should Facebook Tell Users Who Has Seen Their Posts?

Last week, an article by Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel started an interesting debate. The question: should Facebook show users how many of their friends see their posts, as well as how many likes and comments these posts get?

Motivated by a Stanford University study entitled “Quantifying the Invisible Audience in Social Networks”, which revealed that Facebook users were “reaching 35% of their friends with each post and 61% of their friends over the course of a month”, Warzel opined that it might be beneficial to users if they had access to their posts’ reach stats, just as page manager’s and advertisers do.

He also theorised why Facebook didn’t reveal these stats, based on two passages from the Stanford University study which speculated as to why the 220,000 users involved in the study thought that a lower percentage of their friends were seeing their posts that the actual 61%.

The first passage:

Why do people underestimate their audience size in social media? One possible explanation is that, in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, users may lower their estimates for posts that receive few likes or comments. A necessary consequence of users underestimating their audience is that they must be overestimating the probability that each audience member will choose to like or comment on the post. For these posts without feedback, it might be more comfortable to believe that nobody saw it than to believe that many saw it but nobody liked it.

The second passage:

Some measure of social translucence and plausible deniability seems helpful: audience members might not want to admit they saw each piece of content, and sharers might be disappointed to know that many people saw the post but nobody commented or “Liked”.Warzel reasoned that it is probably in Facebook’s interest to keep reach stats from users, so that they aren’t disappointed by the fact that their friends will often see their posts but won’t engage with them, which might in turn cause them to post on Facebook less.

In the article, however, Warzel did not definitively say whether Facebook should make reach stats available to users or not, instead concluding that Facebook kept the vast majority of statistics hidden from the average user – a fact that Warzel didn’t say outright was a bad thing, but did imply as such with the overall tone of his article.

Thirteen hours ago, Facebook engineer Lars Backstrom posted a response to Warzel’s article on Facebook. He wrote that the main premise of Warzel’s opinion piece – “that everyone wants to know how many friends see each of their posts and Facebook doesn't want to tell them” – is incorrect, revealing that, in fact, Facebook had built and tested a similar feature internally but concluded that there wasn’t any real demand for it:

[People] are way more interested in seeing *who* liked their posts, rather than just the number of people who saw it. In fact, in all of the thousands of pieces of feedback we receive about News Feed each month, virtually no one has asked to see this information.

Backstrom took umbrage at Warzel’s implication that Facebook’s engineers “have lots of ulterior motives when [they] make decisions about News Feed”. In the case of users seeing reach stats, for example, Backstrom said the time it took to implement the feature “isn't worth the space it would take up on the screen”.

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine drew Warzel’s attention to Backstrom’s rebuttal, asking for his opinion viaTwitter. On Twitter, Warzel clarified his position on the main question “should Facebook tell users who has seen their posts?” He argued that users should be able to see how many people have viewed their posts, but not who these people are.

Warzel went on to say that he thinks it strange that Facebook encourages users to connect, but then doesn’t reveal how much users are actually connecting through posts and comments, saying that he finds it “hard to believe [that] those looking to 'share' with 'friends' don't care at all about actually reaching them” asking “why do it then?” A question Constine answered, saying that posting adds “another competitive element” to Facebook and people are actually sharing “for themselves”.

Constine then wrote an article about the conversation himself, determining that Backstrom is probably telling the truth:

[The] missing view counts stems not from some malicious fight to keep users in the dark, but from Facebook’s philosophy of trying to only build things that are useful for a wide audience.

Personally, I agree with Constine and Backstrom, I don’t think that the average user really wants or needs to see their posts’ reach stats. It would benefit me more, in fact, if the engagement stat became available, as I post videos and articles more often than statuses. It would be interesting to see how many people engaged with my embedded content, even if they didn't like or share it themselves, just to see what sort of things my friends were interested in.

In reality, though, I would prefer things to stay as they are, with just likes and comments, as they’re the only two positive options I have ever really needed (I say positive because a ‘disapprove’ button would also come in useful, but would never become a reality).

Do you think Facebook users should be able to see the reach of their posts?