The secret of Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm

A couple of years back I was sat on a plane, heading back from San Francisco to London. Next to me was a friendly engineer from Facebook.
We chatted for a while and maybe had a drink or two, I don’t recall the details.
What I do recall was how they gave me a useful piece of information that I have not told anyone about, and that is what I want to give you now.

After all, if you can better understand the way Facebook surfaces content in your stream, you may well find ways to market better.

TL;DR - every relationship you have with people on Facebook can be plotted on a scale of 1 to 10.
And it changes based on your engagement with them. Even though I am focused on 'friends/followers', the same may well apply for Pages you've 'liked' too.

But let’s explore this a little more...

The nature of relationships we have with people on Facebook

Over the past few years things have become a little more complex.
Originally, many moons ago, you needed to be friends with someone in order to interact with them, as the network was private. Now it is a public as well i.e. we can share content that is ‘seeable’ and ‘likeable’ by people who visit our profile/pages when shared on that setting.

Leaving aside the requirement of a rather profound psychological shift, this gives us more options as to the nature of our friendship.

And now there are more factors in our relationships on Facebook:

Pre-friend stage

I send a friend request
They either a) accept it, or b) leave me hanging (you know who you are Brian Clark)

Assuming they accept (one can only hope), then you move to the next stage

Friend stage

The default is that we ‘follow’ our friends, i.e. we see their content in our newsfeed.

So, we are friends, but a) do I follow them? And b) do they follow me?

In other words, we can be friends but you could ‘unfollow me’, and this would change the nature of relationship we have on Facebook as you are requesting not to see my content in your newsfeed.
In the same way I can do the same with you.

In this way we have hopped from Zero on a scale to 1, or above.
1 being the minimum requirement of ‘a friend’, and 2 being the start of the follower relationship (but this is just my estimation of that).

If you choose to opt in to ‘see first’, then that person’s posts will tend to appear at the top of your newsfeed.
This could be seen as a ‘10’ as you are guaranteed to see them, all other things being equal.

Facebook Algorithm

The scale:

Think about it this way - every relationship you have with anyone in the world could be thought of as follows:

Zero (0) - this means you have no direct relationship
Then you have a scale of 1-10, ten being the ‘closest’ to you.

The insight that I gleaned during that flight was that:

Facebook's newsfeed algorithm is based on this principle, a scale of 1-10

Think of it as a scale of proximity, or closeness.

Now, here is the thing…
The number that you have in relation to ‘them’ is not necessarily the same as they have for you.
You may be engaging on their content, or even have them on ‘see first’, and they may well have unfollowed you - if this is one way, it creates asymmetry in the relationship.
And if this is the case, the only way they will tend to see your content if is you/someone tags them in something.

Note: I can also unfriend them, and you can unfriend me. If I’ve also unfollowed you, this would leave you following me.
(Not everyone has the ‘following’ function activated as an option on their profile, but it seems many people do. As such, when someone ‘unfriends’ the other person can still follow.)

What moves someone up and down the scale?

Good question!
Every activity within the platform either moves that person up the scale or down it, or they stay the same. This is turn alters the person's content appearing in your feed.

Here are a few considerations that may well lead to a change in the proximity, and hence newsfeed.

If you are following someone and you want to see more of their content then...

Up the scale

From my experimentation (including unfollowing everyone and to watch what happened, before adding people back in) these may well be a few of the ways engagement triggers a movement in that proximity rating (1 to 10).

Like their content (e.g. up one point)
Share their content (e.g. up two/three points)
Watch a video in the feed (sound off), and the extent you watch
Click to watch video with sound
Appearing in photos together, where they tag themselves
The relationship status you have with people may well alter it too, but I haven’t tested that out yet.

Then we can flip our minds and think from their perspective:

Down the scale

These may be some of the factors to consider...
They unfollow you (you go down to 1 i.e. they see nothing)
You send them a message, but they don’t reply (you drop considerably i.e. they see less)
You tag them in a post but they don’t acknowledge i.e. like (you drop again)
You tag them in a comment but they don’t acknowledge (you know who you are, Dmitry!)
You/someone tags them in a photo but they untag themselves

If you think of it this way. Does the person take your call?
Sometimes they may ‘miss it’ but if the pattern, as a accumulation of signals, continues, then the number of the scale will tend to be more set.
It can always be re-adjusted

Pushed to the top

The top of someone’s newsfeed is prime real estate in the world attention.
And every post that gets a ‘like’ gives reinforcement to both that person and the relationship they have to them on the scale. If a person sees and does not like, it is a waste of attention, hence a movement down the scale.
When you consider that Facebook will surface old posts just to get likes (I had this when I ‘went quiet’ for a while), you can see how dynamic the relationship becomes between platform and people.
Add in the dimension of 'notifications' and you see how attention is encouraged back into the platform - but that is for another day, as this post is primarily on the newsfeed.

Is this just like real life?

Yes, I think it probably is.
We are on the scale with people, if we think in terms of scales.
This is simply a quantitative approach to relationships, whereas the qualitative approach would be about our ‘felt experience’ at that time.
When someone you don’t know when replies to an email, it can move them closer as engagement is an indication of interest.
When someone texts you to say they have been, and I quote, “Apologies but had a change of plan and have choppered off for the day…”, well, that moves them down the scale. (you know who you are!)


Since getting back into the flow on Facebook, I wanted to figure out how information flowed. To do this, I need to know who will potentially see my content. Many friends may have unfollowed me during my daily joke phase (lasted 40 days before moving rapidly into more rude territories), and if I consistently fail to see their likes on popular posts, I can assume this is the case.
In other words I am able to have a better, more accurate map of the territory. And if I want someone’s attention, I may well need to either message them directly or tag them into a post or comment thread.
By doing so, this will help the relationship building of the past enable you to be sustained.