On 1 March 2018, Facebook announced that it was ending its six-nation experiment known as ‘Explore Feed’. The idea was to create a version of Facebook with two different News Feeds: one as a dedicated place with posts from friends and family and another as a dedicated place for posts from Pages.
Adam Mosseri, Head of News Feed at Facebook wrote: “People don’t want two separate feeds. In surveys, people told us they were less satisfied with the posts they were seeing, and having two separate feeds didn’t actually help them connect more with friends and family.”
An international news agency asked me to write a comment on this from Sri Lanka, one of the six countries where the Explore feed was tried out from October 2017 to February 2018. Here is my full text, for the record:
Did Facebook’s “Explore” experiment increase
our exposure to fake news?
Comment by Nalaka Gunawardene, researcher and commentator on online and digital media; Fellow, Internet Governance Academy in Germany
Despite its mammoth size and reach, Facebook is still a young company only 14 years old this year. As it evolves, it keeps experimenting – mistakes and missteps are all part of that learning process.
But given how large the company’s reach is – with over 2 billion users worldwide – there can be far reaching and unintended consequences.
Last October, Facebook split its News Feed into two automatically sorted streams: one for non-promoted posts from FB Pages and publishers (which was called “Explore”), and the other for contents posted by each user’s friends and family.
Sri Lanka was one of six countries where this trial was conducted, without much notice to users. (The other countries were Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia.)
Five months on, Facebook company has found that such a separation did not increase connections with friends and family as it had hoped. So the separation will end — in my view, not a moment too soon!
What can we make of this experiment and its outcome?
Humans are complex creatures when it comes to how we consume information and how we relate to online content. While many among us like to look up what our social media ‘friends’ have recommended or shared, we remain curious of, and open to, content coming from other sources too.
I personally found it tiresome to keep switching back and forth between my main news feed and what FB’s algorithms sorted under the ‘Explore’ feed. Especially on mobile devices – through which 80% of Lankan web users go online – most people simply overlooked or forgot to look up Explore feed. As a result, they missed out a great deal of interesting and diverse content.
For me as an individual user, a key part of the social media user experience is what is known as Serendipity – accidentally making happy discoveries. The Explore feed reduced my chances of Serendipity on Facebook, and as a result, in recent months I found myself using Facebook less often and for shorter periods of time.
For publishers of online newspapers, magazines and blogs, Facebook’s unilateral decision to cluster their content in the Explore feed meant significantly less visibility and click-through traffic. Fewer Facebook users were looking at Explore feed and then going on to such publishers’ content.
I am aware of mainstream media houses as well as bloggers in Sri Lanka who suffered as a result. Publishers in the other five countries reported similar experiences.
For the overall information landscape too, the Explore feed separation was bad news. When updates or posts from mainstream news media and socially engaged organisations were coming through on a single, consolidated news feed, our eyes and ears were kept more open. We were less prone to being confined to the chatter of our friends or family, or being trapped in ‘eco chambers’ of the likeminded.
Content from reputed news media outlets and bloggers sometimes comes with their own biases, for sure, but these act as a useful ‘bulwark’ against fake news and mind-rotting nonsense that is increasing in Sri Lanka’s social media.
It was thus ill-advised of Facebook to have taken such content away and tucked it in a place called Explore that few of us bothered to visit regularly.
The Explore experiment may have failed, but I hope Facebook administrators learn from it to fine-tune their platform to be a more responsive and responsible place for global cacophony to evolve.
Indeed, the entire Facebook is an on-going, planetary level experiment in which all its 2 billion plus members are participating. Our common challenge is to balance our urge for self-expression and sharing with responsibility and restraint. The justified limitations on free speech continue to apply on new media too.
[written on 28 Feb 2018]