“The Number Facebook Doesn’t Want You To See”, an article from Thursday by BuzzFeed claimed Facebook is hiding the number of people who see your posts so you don’t feel bad that most people don’t Like or comment. This morning, a Facebook engineer wrote a retort claiming that is “just plain wrong”, and that Facebook’s testing showed most users are more interested in feedback than total views.
BuzzFeed cited a Stanford study of 220,000 Facebook users that says they underestimate their posts’ audience size by a factor of three. In reality, Facebook users reach 35% of their friends with each post and 61% of their friends per month.
The article hinged on the idea that if you have hundreds of friends yet only get a couple of Likes per post, it’s not that people don’t see your posts, it’s that they ignore them or don’t care enough to Like. BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel writes that Facebook ”knows full well that the only thing worse than speaking to an empty room is speaking to a room full of friends and family and having them ignore you.”
He’s right. That’s not very pleasant, and it’s his reasoning for why Facebook won’t tell normal users how many people see their posts, and it sounds plausible. Facebook doesn’t want to hurt our feelings and prove our friends don’t care about us. Sure. In some cases when I post something I think is really interesting and I get little feedback, I wonder whether my friends find me boring or Facebook didn’t show it to that many people.
But Facebook news feed engineer Lars Backstrom brings his own data to the argument. It’s not an official statement by Facebook, though I was tipped off to it by Facebook PR. About the potential view count feature BuzzFeed suggests the social network is purposefully denying users, Backstrom writes:
“A few of us did build and test a feature like this internally. Our conclusion after testing 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. If we saw enough people asking for this, we would definitely consider building it into the product. But, from what we’ve seen, including the raw numbers isn’t worth the space it would take up on the screen.”
It’s not a matter of hiding anything from users, apparently. It’s just a trade off of value and screen real-estate. Facebook could add it view counts, but it would provide too little utility and take up too much room. That makes sense, especially on mobile.
When the view count number is relevant, Facebook shows it, like for advertisers, Page owners, and Groups. Facebook gave view counts to Groups because it would help people schedule events and make sure everyone in the group was on the same page. Let’s say a book club posted it was changing its meeting location, members could see whether all their fellow bookworms had seen the post, or whether they should be called or texted so they don’t get lost. The feature provided enough utility to warrant the space it took up.
But not everyone wants others to know what they’ve seen when it comes to normal news feed posts. That’s something Warzel never mentions. View counts could raise privacy questions if they come with a list of names like Groups post. If Facebook had view counts with names and you visited someone’s profile, they could find out because you had suddenly viewed all their recent posts. That’s why when people suggested Groups was just a stepping stone to Facebook showing news feed view counts, I wrote that would be too sketchy, and unlikely to happen.
Backstrom concludes that “this BuzzFeed article suggests that we have lots of ulterior motives when we make decisions about News Feed. The reality is that we’re just trying to show people as many interesting stories as possible.” Warzel tweets to me “never wrote that ppl were crying out for post view counts, like he says. Only that it’s in fb’s best interest not to show them.” He believes hurt feelings equal fewer users.
In my opinion, quite the opposite could be true. Showing view counts with names could decrease Facebook usage.
Some people might find view counts fascinating, but they’re unruly. Scanning a list of hundreds of people to see who saw your posts sounds like a chore. It would take up screen space and most wouldn’t use it consistently. But the real danger is that view counts could cause a chilling effect on Facebook browing. You might be apprehensive to freely bounce around Facebook if you knew your were leaving digital breadcrumbs everywhere you went.
Warzel tells me he was imagining view counts would be “anonymized”, without names. He tweets “don’t agree that it’s a real estate problem. could have separate analytics-doesn’t have to be on each post.” He says we know too little about our social network audience, and that anonymous, aggregate view counts could change that. If Facebook wants to back up Backstrom’s claim that view counts are omitted because they’re not worth the real-estate, it could place them somewhere where they wouldn’t detract from the average user’s experience. For example, on the perma-linked page dedicated to each post. That would let interested users dig for their view count without cluttering the Facebook home page.
But is this transparency for transparency’s sake, or do we really need this data?
In the end, I’d bet 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. Maybe it is in Facebook’s interest to hide view counts, but because you’d find them boring, not illuminating. Making this data available, though a bit buried, could be the right balance.