The scorpion and the frog: Who wins as Facebook makes tweaks to its newsfeed algorithms?

When it comes to the media — both traditional and digital — Facebook (s fb) is like a sleeping elephant: every time it shifts position even a little, someone is in danger. That’s why there has been so much attention paid to the social network’s latest changes to its newsfeed algorithms, which were announced last week in a blog post. Although the company says it isn’t out to get anyone, the reality is that some sites will thrive and others will watch their traffic shrivel, as the massive attention stream that is Facebook gets re-routed.

In a recent interview with Peter Kafka of All Things Digital, the guy who runs the News Feed — product manager Lars Backstrom — said Facebook didn’t have any specific targets in mind, but is simply trying to surface the best and most interesting content for its users. In other words, just a few tweaks here and there, based on user feedback. As Backstrom put it:

“We don’t really think about it that much in terms of promoting and demoting certain kinds of content. The way we think about it is that we’re doing a better job of identifying value… It’s not us trying to be more proscriptive. We’re trying to align our definition of value with that of our users.”

Many media companies are twitching nervously, however, as Charlie Warzel noted in a recent BuzzFeed post. While plenty of sites (including BuzzFeed) have been seeing dramatic increases in traffic from Facebook, they are worried about the tap being switched off. Some are clearly remembering what Google’s (s goog) so-called “Panda” algorithm change did to downgrade the visibility of “content farms” such as Demand Media when it was implemented in 2011.

For Facebook, media is a means to an end


While Backstrom said that Facebook doesn’t have specific targets for its changes, that doesn’t mean specific sites that traffic more in viral content aren’t going to be hard hit anyway. The Facebook blog post specifically said that the social network wants to downplay the visibility of “viral” content such as popular photo memes, and Backstrom admitted that many of the judgements about what content to surface will be made based on the source:

“As we refine our approaches, we’ll start distinguishing more and more between different types of content. But, for right now, when we think about how we identify “high quality,” it’s mostly at the source level.”

Backstrom said that comparing the changes to earlier News Feed alterations — which penalized everything from “social-reader” apps like those from The Guardian and the Washington Post to viral games from companies like Zynga — was overstating the case. But the reality is that whenever Facebook changes its content-highlighting algorithms, someone pays the price, and in this case it could easily be sites like BuzzFeed or Upworthy, which specialize in “viral” content.

To use another metaphor from the animal kingdom, Facebook’s attitude can be summed up by the story of the scorpion and the frog: the scorpion asked the frog to give him a ride across the river, promising not to sting him — and of course he did anyway, at which point the frog asked him why. According to the story, the scorpion said: “I can’t help it, it’s my nature!”

For Facebook, media companies and their content are simply a means to an end. And at a time when the engagement levels for content on the social network are dropping, it needs to do whatever is necessary to fix that problem — and if that means smothering certain kinds of content it will do that. And media companies will get another lesson in relying on a third-party platform.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Kuznetzov Alexey and Shutterstock / mj007