Facebook Engineer Lars Backstrom Responds To BuzzFeed Post On Why Users Don’t Know How Many Friends Have Seen Their Posts

By David Cohen 

The Number Facebook Doesn’t Want You to See,” a post on BuzzFeed last Thursday claiming that Facebook intentionally withholds data on how many friends of users see their posts, drew a quick rebuttal Sunday from Facebook Engineer Lars Backstrom.

BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel cited data from a Stanford University study, saying that on average, Facebook posts reach 35 percent of users’ friends, and on a monthly basis, Facebook users reach 61 percent of their friends. Warzel wrote:

For all of our obsession with likes, comments, retweets, and reblogs — and all of the careful attention to crafting our profiles — at the end of the day, the biggest question remains a mystery: How many people actually saw what you’re sharing?

In fact, most of what happens after an update is sent out takes place out of sight — only Facebook knows the truth. And it’s in the company’s best interest to keep that information to itself. The company knows full well that the only thing worse than speaking to an empty room is speaking to a room full of friends and family and having them ignore you.

When it comes to complex, data-rich systems like Facebook, we see only a sliver of the full picture. It’s not the whole story, just the part we need.

Backstrom responded in a post on his Facebook page Sunday:

As someone who works on News Feed at Facebook every day, I wanted to take a moment to clarify and correct a few aspects of a BuzzFeed story that was posted yesterday:

The main premise of the article — that everyone wants to know how many friends see each of their posts and Facebook doesn’t want to tell them — is just plain wrong. A few of us did build and test a feature like this internally. Our conclusion after testing it: People are way more interested in seeing *who* liked their posts, rather than just the number of people who saw it. In fact, in all of the thousands of pieces of feedback we receive about News Feed each month, virtually no one has asked to see this information. If we saw enough people asking for this, we would definitely consider building it into the product. But, from what we’ve seen, including the raw numbers isn’t worth the space it would take up on the screen. The BuzzFeed author notes that we do show advertisers how many people see their posts. That’s true, but we also show this information to group members and page owners who aren’t advertisers. That’s because these people care about how many people see these posts; everyday users — not so much.

I think that this is also a good opportunity to clear up a few other misconceptions about how News Feed works, since there are a lot of rumors and theories floating around. The prime directive of News Feed is to show you the stories that you will find most interesting. If our ranking system thinks that you’ll find a post very interesting, we’ll publish it near the top. If a story seems less likely to be interesting to you, we publish it further down, below other things that seem more important. Our ranking certainly isn’t perfect, and we are continually refining it, but we’ve run many tests showing that any time we stop ranking and show posts in chronological order, the number of stories people read decreases and the amount of likes and comments people produce decreases. That’s not good for our users or for Facebook.

All said, this BuzzFeed article suggests that we have lots of ulterior motives when we make decisions about News Feed. The reality is that we’re just trying to show people as many interesting stories as possible.

Readers: Would you be interested in seeing how many of your friends viewed your posts, or do you agree with Backstrom that it would be a waste of space?

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