Why Facebook Needs Trending Links

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Facebook is not working on an RSS product, we hear, but it
still has a huge and truly social opportunity in news discovery.
Facebook could turn what links we share with friends into an
automatic Digg for the world. Over a billion people are on
Facebook, and many share links to news stories and offsite content
along with their commentary. Yet rather than post publicly like on
Twitter, most posts are shared semi-privately with friends and
acquaintances. Right now there’s no way for people to glean the
collective opinion of Facebook users on what’s important. Only
Facebook’s algorithms see what the most popular links and words
are across the entire social network. If Facebook took data on what
people shared and used it in a privacy-safe, anonymous, aggregate
form, it could create a list of the world’s most popular web pages
at any given moment. Conveniently linked to from the Facebook home
page and mobile app, the list could become an informative and
addictive window it our collective consciousness.


There are places to
get a peek into what the world is sharing or interested in today,
but none with Facebook’s data set or mainstream user base. Reddit
is amazing. It’s a wildly diverse community of people picking the
day’s most important content across a near-limitless array of
categories. Their votes surface what’s most interesting, and their
voices are arranged into intelligible threads and conversations.
Its threaded design is so good, in fact, that I think we’ll see
other less-formatted comment systems move towards Reddit’s style
with time. You could argue whether it’s an advantage or
disadvantage, but Reddit is based on active submissions. For
something to appear on Reddit, someone must have the initiative and
take the time to purposefully post it. Once there, it’s only the
Redditors who vote and comment that determine a post’s rank. That
makes what tops Reddit’s homepage more of a reflection of the
Reddit community than the web as a whole. Sure, there are R/’s for
everyone, but as a whole, Reddit carries a bit of a proudly nerdy
attitude mixed with doses of skepticism and humor. Facebook’s
opportunity comes from the potential to scan everything shared on
it and use a wider, more mainstream definition of popularity to
rank a list of what’s interesting. No one would have to actively
vet the list. It would simply evolve organically based on how
frequently things were shared on Facebook, and maybe how many
clicks, likes, and comments they received. Offering lists by
country or international region could make sure the content is
somewhat localized.


The Facebook news discovery experience I’m imagining shares some
similarities with Twitter’s Trending Topics. It too doesn’t have to
be actively vetted by users. People just go about their days
tweeting, and popular words and hashtags bubble to the top of the
list. But do you find yourself addicted to checking Twitter’s
trending topics? No. At least I sure don’t. They can be briefly
shocking or amusing but they rarely teach me much or spur me to
click. Twitter Trends don’t even have their own web page. They’re
just stuck on the left rail of Twitter’s home page. On mobile
they’re lumped into the Discover tab. In what I see as their
critical shortcoming, they have no context. No way to understand
why they’re being shared. Clicking them simply opens a search for
that word or hashtag, which can produce results that are a mess,
tough to decipher, and don’t provide any definitive answer to what
the trend is about. For obvious things like sporting events and
huge international news, these streams can offer a fascinating
insight into what the world is thinking. But even a Google search
couldn’t quickly tell me that #FOTunis referred to the Freedom
Online conference in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Organizing news
discovery around individual words or short phrases doesn’t seem
very efficient or easy…at least not with this design or without
context. If Facebook centered a news discovery product around
links, it could make it much clearer what people are discussing.
Links typically come with some combination of a headline, a photo,
and some text that can be used as a blurb. All Facebook would need
to do is show a list of links with this info, just like it does
when you post websites to the news feed, and people could get the pulse
of the planet in a quick skim. While we’re on the topic of Facebook
hashtags, signs indicate the company will eventually create a list
of trending hashtags. Facebook launched hashtags, similar to
Twitter’s, earlier this month, and on Thursday launched Related
Hashtags, which displays other tags frequently added to the same
post as a hashtag you’ve searched for or clicked on. I believe
Facebook is rolling the hashtags product out slowly so it can learn
to slice and dice the data in order to create a trending hashtags


Yet there hasn’t been
one with a truly mainstream focus. If Facebook nailed
this, it could generate a ton of traffic. I think some people would
click to refresh it and see what’s happening in the world often —
almost as often as they read the news feed for content from their
friends. The two could be seen as parallel pillars of information —
that which is interesting specifically to you, and that which is
interesting to everyone. Private and public. Subjective and
objective. A Facebook trending links section could also spark high-quality conversations within Facebook. If it shows me something
that resonates with me, I might not just click, but share and talk
about it with my friends. Ideally, if friends had already shared
it, I’d see that and the conversations that followed in-line on the
trends list. Facebook already has a nifty way of doing this in the
most recent design of the news feed. It shows a stack of profile
pictures next to a shared link, and you can hover over each to see
how that friend described the content and what their friends
replied. Using that design for Trending Links my friends had
already shared could be a great alternative to one long, messy
comment thread of strangers. If you’re thinking “I don’t need this.
My friends already share great links and clue me in to what’s
happening in the world”, you’re lucky, and you’re probably in the
minority. Remember that the average user had around 180 to 250
friends last I heard. I worry that great swaths of Facebook’s user
base, especially in emerging markets and countries where the
service bloomed later, are missing out on one of the great joys of
the social web — the instant, collective conversation surrounding
the day’s news, tragedies, and triumphs. It would just take one
person perusing Facebook Trends to enlighten an entire social
cluster. Since there aren’t real character limits on posts, and
comment threads are clearly displayed, people would have plenty of
room to voice dissenting opinions about the world’s most popular
links. In that way, Facebook’s format and the way it diverges from
Twitter could keep it from becoming an echo chamber. In fact, the
aggregated “5 friends shared this link” design makes it quick to
view a variety of perspectives on a piece of content. With any
discovery medium comes opportunities to monetize through sponsored
placement. Brands could pay to have their links inserted within the
list of trending links. This could become a premier channel for
content marketing. Traditional ads might not work there, but links
to branded content or apps, fun marketing stunts, or contests could
do well when not jammed into the news feed where they don’t quite
fit with organic content from friends. Top-tier advertisers have
been pushing Facebook for ways to reach large audiences all at
once, and this could be the ticket. If Facebook wants to house our
digital lives, it can’t just be about who we are and what we’ve
done. It must also encompass what we think, and to get us to
volunteer our thoughts, it should strive to inform us, inspire us,
and seed our discussions with friends by surfacing what’s popular
around the globe. [Image Credit: Brian Shaler]