Facebook is messing with your News Feed -- again

Don't recognize items in your News Feed? That's because Facebook put them there.

Like an obsessive compulsive who is always alphabetizing the food in his pantry, Facebook is messing with the items that appear in your News Feed again. Unlike Mr. OCD, though, it’s doing this to maximize its revenues.

As promised last month, Facebook is starting to place advertisements directly within peoples’ News Feeds. Only only instead of calling them “social ads” or “sponsored stories,” they’re labeled simply as “Featured.”

[img_assist|nid=241039|title=Facebook Featured Ads|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=558|height=323]

Screen courtesy of Inside Facebook (thanks guys).

A Facebook spokesbot explained why to ZDnet’s Emil Protalinski:

“We are using the term ‘featured’ because we want to make it clear to people that they’re seeing content from a Page or person they have chosen to connect to. Since people can see marketing messages from both Pages they have and have not Liked, we want to make it clear that marketers can only pay for stories to be featured in your News Feed if you have explicitly liked the Page. And because you are always connected to your friends, we are also labelling stories from your friends that have been paid to be featured in your News Feed as ‘featured’ to keep things consistent.”

Translation: Facebook will only show you these ads if you or some friend of yours clicked “Like” on that product or manufacturer’s page, and then only if they’re paying Facebook for the privilege of showing it to you. Facebook also initially promised to deliver only one “featured” item per day, then upped the ante to multiple ads per day “if you visit your News Feed a lot.”

That make you feel any better? I didn’t think so.

But that’s not the only way Facebook is tweaking your News Feed to its advantage. The other trick is via “highlighted stories.” These are stories that float to the top of your feed, marked by a pale blue triangle in the upper left corner. Per Facebook’s support pages,

We determine whether something is a highlighted story based on lots of factors, including your relationship to the person who posted the story, how many comments and likes it got, what type of story it is, etc. For example, a friend’s status update that might not normally be a highlighted story may be highlighted after many other friends comment on it.

That’s their story, anyway. I’m not entirely buying it. This morning, for instance, I got hit with a small tsunami of highlighted stories all featuring music my BFBFFs (best Facebook friends forever) were listening to on Spotify.

[img_assist|nid=241041|title=Facebook gives Spotify a boost|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=478|height=590]

The first 11 stories in my News Feed were just like that. I have no relation to most of these people besides a Facebook friend request. There was a total of one comment on one song and no Likes for any of them. Most of the bands I’ve never heard of, and I’ve never listened to any of them myself on Spotify. And yet there they were at the top of my feed.

That is too weird to be coincidence. The only explanation is that Facebook favors this “type” of story. My cynical conclusion: Facebook tweaked its “highlighting” algorithm to give a boost to Spotify, which went all in with the social network last September.

Facebook has created a cheery little video about how its targeted ads work and why without them Facebook as we know it would forever cease to exist. As usual, it follows the Three Essential Rules of Corporate Web 2.0 video:

1. The background music is always something upbeat, usually featuring ukulele music and whistling.

2. The on-camera talent is always attractive people of multiple ethnicities (but not too attractive – you don’t want people thinking you’re spending your ad revenue on super models).

3. Whatever it is the video is promoting is good for you and good for America. We promise.

I don’t have a problem with Facebook selling ads targeted to my alleged interests. I do have a problem with them being sneaky about it. Even if the service is free, there needs to be a clear separation between real information and paid content. Facebook is trying to blur that line, deliberately. This needs to stop.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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