Some of Facebook’s scholars-in-residence have published an analysis of approximately 283 million Facebook users’ sharing habits. The study, which has to do with the paths by which information is caught up and shared — which types of friends share the most, where you post the most content from, and so on. The study itself was, no doubt, spurred by honest intellectual curiosity, but the summary on Facebook a slightly editorializing bent that suggests things were more purposeful.
The conclusions are largely in line with analogous social propagation situations. They cite “The Strength of Weak Ties,” validate many of its hypotheses in relation to this new data, and use its terminology throughout. It should soothe, they say, those among us who feel Facebook may be something of an echo chamber. It seems to me, though, that the study actually reinforces that idea.
That’s not to say that echo chambers are by definition bad. Far from it. The way news propagates now is via echo chamber — sometimes with effective results, sometimes less so — but echo chambers do a propagation duty, they perform an action which is focused on the quantum of information being propagated. Truth, context, and discussion are secondary to means of propagation. And Facebook is without a doubt primarily a means of propagation.
The question of whether it is an echo chamber is easily answered: yes, it’s an echo chamber, because the whole website is structured around sharing. There is no, for example, “topic” section of your home page where similar trending stories (say, relating to SOPA) are collected, with high-ranking comments accompanying. That’s not Facebook’s function, and I’m not sure I’d want it to be. Facebook is about, as they put it so succinctly in the paper, “media contagion.” As far as links and photos go, that is its purpose (this does not apply to its app and messaging platforms, of course).
It comes as little surprise that weak ties bring more novel information into your feed, and strong ties propagate what you post more often. Hundreds of people whom you know from diverse circumstances and don’t interact with frequently? Of course they’d have information that’s novel and potentially interesting. And close friends who see your shared items often, and understand the spirit in which they were posted? Of course they’d be more likely to like, comment, and re-share. I hasten to add that this is no indicator of any lack of quality in the study; some of the most difficult and important studies merely confirm what seems intuitively true.
The diversity of information doesn’t prevent something from being an echo chamber. The bigger the chamber, the more diversity. Facebook is just the biggest echo chamber out there. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. But it’s counterproductive to say you’re not something when you clearly, massively are. Facebook should be improving its echo chamber, not trying to escape this perfectly accurate but possibly derogatory label.
The data was partially controlled for, you may be interested to know, by removing certain items from users’ news feeds. Very few, it must be said: they estimate more than 99% of the news items they monitored ended up getting into the feeds they should have. I can’t muster much outrage over this, since Facebook’s little algorithms already pick and choose which items get posted to your feed. It’s still a little odd to think you participated unknowingly in the experiment.
Here is the paper, by (from Facebook) Eytan Bakshy, Itamar Rosenn, Cameron Marlow, and (from the University of Michigan) Lada Adamic, in full: