Facebook’s controversial Trending topics feature is sacrificing support for niche interests in favor of an internationally scalable approach that could create nationwide digital water cooler moments you can read at a glance. Facebook is making three significant updates to Trending that will start rolling out in the US today on desktop in the right sidebar.
- Facebook is adding an immediately visible headline from a top publisher about each Trend so you know what it’s about, even though Facebook removed its own staff-written descriptions of Trends last year
- Facebook is dropping personalization so everyone in a country sees the same top Trends instead of your list adapting to what topics like sports or video games you typically click on or are interested in
- Facebook is changing how it’s measuring what’s Trending to prioritize topics that lots of news publishers are writing about instead of topics getting lots of engagement because a celebrity’s mention of it or other single post went viral
It helps you know what’s going on across Facebook whether or not it matches up with what your friends are talking about
Together, these updates will make it much easier for Facebook to bring Trending to more countries and languages, as it’s only available in a few places that speak English plus India right now. The unified set of Trends with headlines attached could also help surface news publishers to new audiences, simultaneously helping Facebook’s news partners grow while decreasing the filter bubble phenomenon that causes people to only see points of view they agree with.
Facebook VP of Product Management Will Cathcart tells me “One of the nice things about Trending is it helps you know what’s going on across Facebook whether or not it matches up with what your friends are talking about or publishers you follow are talking about.”
Instead of relying on its own humans to write descriptions, which could be biased or just take a ton of labor, it’s piggybacking on professional publishers who’ve already written clear descriptions of the news. It could do this with any local publishers. Facebook’s algorithms will pick the most engaging publisher’s post about the topic that has a headline that fits in the allotted space, and humans will only serve to check that a Trend relates to a real-world happening and doesn’t violate its community standards before it goes live.
By removing the personalization, Facebook also eliminates confusion about why something was Trending for one user and not another. This could also create a sense a community around Trending, since users will know that other people in their country will have seen the same Trends if they were on Facebook and can discuss them together.
And with the new measurement system, Facebook could avoid accidentally making fake news shared by a popular public figure into a Trend. Facebook will also be scanning for reports of a story being fake and disqualify those to prevent misinformation from seeping into Trending.
Facebook first launched Trending in 2014 in what was seen as a copy of Twitter, but with the added benefit of human-written descriptions so you actually knew why a hashtag, brand, celebrity, or phrase was popular.
But in 2016, Gizmodo published allegations that Facebook’s human curators for Trending had biased the feature to suppress politically conservative topics. Though Facebook reported its investigation found no evidence of purposeful or widespread bias, it decided to lay off the human description writers and institute a more algorithmic approach to picking what appeared in Trending in a way that gave more weight to stories popular with smaller publishers, some of which are more conservative than the top outlets.
While absolving Facebook from some criticism of human error, it made the product prone to mistakes where fake news stories appeared as Trends, such as one that said Fox News had fired Megyn Kelly. It also made it tougher to know what a Trend was about without hovering over it to see a news story about it. Now Facebook is adding context back in by including news publisher headlines.
There are some tradeoffs
Lovers of niche news topics will now be met with a more generic set of Trends, though they can go through the Trending feature’s tabs to see stories about particular topics like Politics or Entertainment. The new unified set of Trends for each country makes Facebook a bit more like Imgur or the old Digg, where users can commune around a particularly popular topic.
“There are some tradeoffs” Cathcart admits. “If I’m not into sports I might see Trends about sports.” But he insists having a wider perspective about what’s on the country’s mind, even if it’s not on yours, is valuable. “It’s useful to know that that’s one of the topics on Facebook that people are talking about” he concludes.
It’s a stern shift from Facebook’s typical reliance on personalization across its product. And in some respects, it makes Facebook more like a media company, since it’s showing the same content to everyone, even if algorithms are heavily involved in the curation.
But Mark Zuckerberg says he sees Facebook as a town square, and now everyone in town will see the same Facebook newspaper headlines.