The news that Facebook experimented on 689,000 of its users without their knowledge has separated people into two camps. There are those that have shrugged their shoulders and said, as indeed the researchers themselves said, that Facebook manipulates their News Feed all of the time and so this is really no different. On the other hand, there are those that have expressed concern that Facebook has forgotten that in all of that data, there are actual people who should be protected against random experiments by ethical safeguards.
What all of this has reminded people, however, is that Facebook does control what information you see in their service, and its priorities are front-and-centre about serving its paying customers, the advertisers.
However, if you want to do something about this, you can.
First though, it is worth considering how Facebook decides what updates to show you in the News Feed. This used to be done by something called EdgeRank which worked on the basis of calculating 3 different measures for each post. These measures weighted the importance of the post by looking at the time since it was published, the affinity of the poster to the reader, and a measure of how interesting the post was deemed to be. Now however, this decision is made on as many as 100 thousand different measures, including possibly, whether the content is happy or sad.
The second factor that is important from a News Feed perspective is how the posts are ordered. Remember that this is separate from the way they have been filtered. If a post is not deemed interesting, you simply won’t see it in your News Feed. Sorting is done by either most interesting posts first (top stories) or by the most recent posts first (most recent stories).
So, as long as you use the News Feed, you are only ever going to see what Facebook decides you should see. This includes experimenting with what it shows you. It is worth remembering that in the past, this has included on trying to influence how people vote in US elections.
Create a list of your friends
To get around this direct manipulation, you can avoid using the News Feed at all. The first thing you need to do is to create a list of your friends. You can do this by clicking on the Friends title in the left hand menu and then clicking the Create a List button. The rest is pretty self-explanatory but you can get instructions by Googling “how to create a list in facebook”.
Once you have done this, you can add the list to your Favourites which will make it visible in the left hand menu under your News Feed.
You can then control the content that shows up in this feed, removing information about Games and more annoyingly, information about who has become friends with whom and what they have just liked.
For even better control however, you need something like F.B. Purity.
Purging the Feed
Instructions for F.B. Purity are available for different browsers. What it does is to catch the page as it starts to display and then hides ads, games updates and other information that you select to hide. The default settings are pretty good and so for most people you shouldn’t have to do anything more.
Used in combination with a friend’s list, F.B. Purity gives you a fairly unadulterated feed of stories from the people you want to hear from. Plus, you won’t get distracted by ads and sponsored stories.
There are other apps that will do the same thing as F.B. Purity. Adblock Plus for example will clean out ads from normal websites as well as Facebook.
Of course, this won’t work on your mobile so you would have to make an active decision to just access Facebook via the computer.
Making it Permanent
The entire Facebook experiment story has been interesting mostly for the sheer number of people who are resigned to any manner of treatment from companies, provided the service is free. This is obviously fine and in fact if Facebook explicitly asked people if they didn’t mind being experimented on, most would presumably agree. That is all that most of the other people who are concerned about Facebook’s recent behaviour are really asking, that they are told about these things and can then make an informed choice.
Until then, you can avoid being a lab rat and take control of your feed.