Meta’s proof People hate chronological feeds

Meta's proof People hate chronological feeds

The Impact of Chronological Feeds on Social Media Users

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In late 2020, a groundbreaking experiment conducted by Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, shed light on users’ reactions to chronological feeds. The purpose of this multimillion-dollar project was to examine the influence of these platforms on people’s political attitudes during the 2020 US presidential election campaign. However, the study’s side findings on users’ preference for algorithmic feeds turned out to be as intriguing as the main research goal.

For three months, a group of nearly 7,200 US adults on Facebook and 8,800 on Instagram experienced a different kind of newsfeed, where posts were shown based on their chronological order rather than the algorithm’s relevance. The response was clear: users who received a chronological feed quickly grew bored and were more likely to turn to alternative platforms like YouTube and TikTok, ultimately seeking more engaging content.

It is worth noting that Instagram previously offered a chronological feed, which was initially removed in 2016 due to user objections. However, in response to demand, Instagram reintroduced the feature in 2020, as did Facebook. Some users prefer the chronological option to stay updated on live events, while others see it as a countermeasure to opaque ranking algorithms that may trap individuals in information bubbles or expose them to harmful content.

Interestingly, recent data from meta studies over the past decade reveal a consistent pattern. Displaying posts in chronological order tends to drive users away from the platform. This supports the argument that Meta, despite facing regulatory and political pressure, strives to make it challenging for users to access alternatives to the algorithm-dominated feed.

The recent addition of a reverse chronological feed option in Instagram’s new Twitter-clone, Threads, indicates the platform’s response to user demands and their need for greater engagement. However, Meta is acutely aware of the potential consequences and its effects on user disengagement. Dean Eckles, a social scientist and statistician at MIT who has worked for Meta and testified to US senators about feed design, explains that the ranked feed is optimized for user consumption and engagement. As a result, any intervention that disrupts the algorithmic feed is likely to reduce user engagement.

To put it humorously, “If Facebook takes away your Snickers, you can still go to TikTok and eat Doritos.” According to Michael Wagner, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, users will always find alternative sources of entertainment if they are dissatisfied with the content offered by a specific platform.

While the focus of Meta’s 2020 election project was primarily political, it encompassed 17 separate studies, four of which were published as peer-reviewed research papers. The study investigating feed effects, published in the journal Science, provided the new data on chronological feeds. The study randomized the display of posts to evaluate the impact of machine-learning algorithms on users’ political attitudes. Interestingly, the results showed that the use of a chronological feed did not significantly affect users’ political knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors. However, it did increase exposure to political and untrustworthy content.

It is important to note that while this study’s findings indicate minimal direct effects of feed-ranking algorithms on polarization, they do not paint a complete picture. Eckles suggests that a more substantial shift, such as switching all users to a chronological feed or extending the study’s duration, could yield different results. Therefore, caution must be exercised in drawing definitive conclusions.

The data also highlights a clear trend: users who had access to the chronological feed spent less time on Facebook and Instagram. Instagram users spent 36 percent more time on TikTok and 20 percent more time on YouTube, while Facebook users navigated to 52 percent more frequently and 21 percent more often. These users saw less content from friends and were less likely to engage with posts in their feed.

This finding is consistent with internal experiments conducted within Facebook in 2018, which revealed similar trends among users. The commonly accepted theory is that chronological feeds become barren deserts when connections fail to post regularly, leading users to seek out more engaging content elsewhere. Instagram justified its move away from the chronological feed by claiming that users were missing out on 70 percent of new content, and its algorithmic feed aimed to prioritize what users cared about most.

Despite numerous studies supporting the benefits of algorithmic feeds, there has been pushback from social media experts and critics. They argue that users may appreciate chronological feeds more if given additional tools and time to customize their experience. Moreover, the term “chronological” can vary in meaning across different apps and studies.

Currently, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook still offer options for users to view posts in chronological order, but this is not the default experience on any of these platforms. Interestingly, TikTok solely relies on an algorithmic approach to content distribution, which is widely regarded as a key factor in its success.

While the recent introduction of a chronological feed in Instagram’s Threads app may imply a response to user feedback, the platform remains cautious about the feature’s potential acceptance. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, acknowledged the feature’s launch in response to “your feedback.” However, it is safe to say that Meta is keeping a close eye on its impact and whether users will embrace it.

In conclusion, the experiment conducted by Meta has shed light on users’ reactions to chronological feeds on social media platforms. The data suggests that while the direct impact of feed-ranking algorithms on political polarization may be minimal, the use of chronological feeds can lead to user disengagement. The allure of more personalized and relevant content offered by algorithmic feeds keeps users attentive and engaged. As social media continues to evolve, striking a balance between user control and algorithmic curation remains a challenge for platforms seeking to provide the optimal user experience.