Facebook’s Latest Algorithm Tweak Could Be Good News for Serious Journalism

Facebook is getting friendlier toward longform journalism.


Ever hear anyone complain that their Facebook feed is too cluttered with in-depth, nuanced stories that take time to read and digest?

Neither has Facebook, apparently.

On Thursday, the company announced a tweak to its news feed algorithm that could give serious journalism and other compelling content a more prominent place on the world’s most influential news platform. Specifically, the algorithm will now predict how long you’re likely to spend reading a given article once you’ve clicked on it, and take that into account in its rankings. The move is part of a long-term push by Facebook to prioritize what it deems “quality content” over catchy headlines and cheap clickbait.

Facebook announced the change in a blog post titled, “More Articles You Want to Spend Time Viewing.” From the post:

We’re learning that the time people choose to spend reading or watching content they clicked on from News Feed is an important signal that the story was interesting to them. We are adding another factor to News Feed ranking so that we will now predict how long you spend looking at an article in the Facebook mobile browser or an Instant Article after you have clicked through from News Feed. This update to ranking will take into account how likely you are to click on an article and then spend time reading it.

Importantly, Facebook says it will measure time spent “within a threshold,” so that it doesn’t “accidentally treat longer articles preferentially.” In other words, the goal here isn’t to fill people’s feeds with stories that take 30 minutes to read. Rather, it’s to prioritize stories that the average reader looks at for at least a minute or two over those that many people quickly skim and then close.

This is a point that’s likely to get lost in the initial media coverage of the change, which will almost certainly feature lots of people either claiming a big victory for longform journalism or mounting righteous defenses of the virtues of brevity. As anyone who has spent time looking at publishing analytics could tell you, the operative constraint on the time the average reader spends on a story is not the story’s length; it’s how many people quit reading partway through. (Congratulations to those who have made it even this far—and thank you!)

That said, length matters too, and the extent to which this change boosts longer articles over shorter ones will depend on just where Facebook sets those thresholds. That will likely depend in part on Facebook’s own internal surveys of how the change is working, both in terms of its effect on objective engagement metrics and users’ qualitative responses to the company’s surveys.

For a few years now, I’ve been closely covering Facebook’s attempts to build a better news feed by taking into account ever more varieties of data. The latest tweak builds on one that I wrote about two years ago, in which Facebook began tracking and downgrading stories that people closed almost immediately after opening them. (Facebook interpreted this as a sign that the story blatantly failed to deliver what its clicky headline had promised.) Now it’s addressing the flip side of that coin, which is to upgrade stories that people seem to be really enjoying once they’ve clicked.

It’s all part of Facebook’s never-ending battle with the inevitable loopholes in its own algorithm—which, as I’ve explained, will never be perfect, but at best can inch gradually closer to reflecting what the company thinks its users really want to see.

Previously in Slate: Who Really Controls What You See in Your Facebook Feed—and Why They Keep Changing It