Unitarian Universalism & Social Media: Facebook Keeps Changing

It has become pretty common knowledge over the last couple of years that Facebook makes choices for you. Facebook has developed very clever programs, like robots that watch the site for them. Those programs pick what goes on your screen in hopes of keep you looking at the screen longer and seeing just a few more ads each day. How they do this is a trade secret, but what we have figured out allows you some level of control and lets you choose not only more of what you see, but what Facebook thinks other people need to see, too.

The Skinny:

The Algorithm is a program running on Facebook’s computers that chooses what you seen in your newsfeed. It bases this choice on a complex system that looks at every click you make on Facebook and tries to guess what you are interested in by how you interact with and how much time you spend with a post or page.

Rather than using just information you intentionally tell them about yourself, the Algorithm goes by what you click on. It’s goal is to make sure that the things you see are things that you interact with. The hope is to make Facebook more interesting and keep you looking at it for even one minute longer than you would have otherwise.

Facebook can tell when you click on things, obviously. And it records all of those clicks. Would it surprise you to know it can also tell when the Facebook tab is the one in the front on your browser? Or how long between clicks? It also loads posts in your newsfeed a few at a time. This means that it only sends your computer a screen-full at a time and knows which things you have seen, how you interacted with them, and for how long. All this lets the Algorithm guess how much time you spend with each post or link.

The Facebook servers record every click on every page of Facebook, those to content inside of Facebook and links leading off-site. They know if you click on a picture to see the bigger version. There is a record of every person who has clicked a link to a particular news item. Facebook computers track every time someone reacts, or unreacts, to a post. This is all fed into the program ominously called “the algorithm” which chooses what Facebook will show you the next time you log in.

We want to show you some of what we’ve learned about this process. The goal is to empower you to use it to guide Facebook to the content you really care about. The side benefit, should you choose to use it, is that you can help make sure that your favorite UU-themed pages are getting noticed!

Here is what we think we know:

Most of us like a lot of pages. We like bands, and friends’ businesses, and businesses we spend money with, and our church, former church, and district…

There is sparse information released by Facebook for marketing folks to analyze. What we have tells us that the average Facebook user in the US currently likes 70+ different Facebook pages. Pages, on average, publish 36 posts, links, and images a month. That makes around 1,440 items a month that could be in the average person’s newsfeed. That’s not including what your friends post.

Facebook does not show you most of these, even if you like and follow 70+ pages.

There are several hundred posts a day to pick from between friends of and pages liked by the average user. Since most people seem to spend less than an hour looking at the newsfeed, Facebook is trying to filter that for you based on what kinds of posts for each source you interact with. The details are a trade secret, but a lot of people have been working on trying to figure it out, and here is what we think matches what happens on the I Am UU page.

Here is our specific data:

The average post on the I Am UU page is only seen by between 10% and 15% of our fans, and that is actually a really good exposure rate on Facebook these days. We also post a lot of original content, including images, which have significantly better reach than links or text posts. Sadly, we seem unable to predict which pictures will be most popular, and don’t know why some do much better than others that we were just as proud of.

Links tend to be seen by even fewer people than text posts, though the difference isn’t huge and some links do a lot better than others. Posts with links that take you away from Facebook are hit-or-miss; impact depends on whether they evoke strong feelings and if they have a catchy headline or a good picture attached.

Live video can be really good, if you generate reactions and comments. Ours haven’t been the most engaging, but other videos have done pretty well.

If the post has a “see more” link, it seems that people click on it if it is about Unitarian Universalism, but much less often if it is about the I Am UU project specifically. That gives us extra data. When people click that link, it seems to matter a lot. Facebook sees that the post is worth a little extra effort to read.

How can you affect the system?

By interacting thoughtfully with Facebook. Know how your interactions are perceived, and you can mold that perception.

Choose how you interact with Facebook based on what you want Facebook to think about you and the content you are seeing.

If you like something, and you think it deserves to be seen, don’t just like it. Click the link, open the image, leave even a short “thank you” or “This helps” comment. Each of those things seems to matter individually.

Shares seem to be a little more effective, especially if the person sharing spends time putting a description on their share, even if it is just copying what we said about it. Shares also put the post in front of your friends. That is obviously you telling Facebook, “I think people should see this.”

Comments seem to be another strong indicator, in that a post that generates comments in the first hour or so tends to be seen by significantly more people than one that does not. Comments invite more comments, and that leads to people clicking links. It seems that people clicking to read comment threads might also have a very strong effect on how the algorithm sees the post and the connection to the user.

Clicking on a link within a post seems to be a strong positive feedback for Facebook. Links that get clicks also get shown to more people. Clicking links you want people to see, even it you’ve seen them or think you know what they say, seems like an option for working the system.

The Skinny:

The more time something takes, the more it seems to matter to the algorithm.
Shares have the most overall impact. Comments and link clicks seem to matter a lot, followed by simple post likes.

In short, it seems that the more time you spend interacting with a post, the better. Comments and “see more” or other link clicks seem to have the strongest effect. “Likes” tend to be diluted; a lot of us click “like” on dozens of posts a day. Leaving short comments on posts will help more people see the post and the page in general, as it will become more valuable to Facebook. This is a big help to a non-profit like a church, charity, or to small businesses.

Additionally, mentioning a page by typing the @ and the page name ( eg. “@I Am UU” or “@IAmUUPage”) in posts you make seems to raise the visibility. When you post about your weekend, mention that you went to @MyChurch on Sunday. That will improve the way Facebook views that relationship. It also helps your friends find the pages that are important to you, which is a pleasant side effect.

What if I want to make sure I see every post from I Am UU or Skinner House?

Sometimes, there is a page that you are worried about seeing all the posts from. Maybe I Am UU, UU World, or perhaps your congregation’s Facebook page? Here are some tips for making sure you see everything.

  1. Turn on the “See First”option for the page. This is the only proactive way to ensure that its posts are put in your newsfeed.
  2. Bookmark the page, and visit it directly every few days. This is the only way to make sure you see everything a page posts.
  3. Turn on notifications. Do this only for a page or select group of pages to ensure that you aren’t overwhelmed by notifications.
  4. Create an interest list of pages in a category. Then, view that list to see all the content from those pages.

Last thoughts and important take-aways

You need to know that the more you interact with a page, the more you show Facebook that the content is important to you and people like you, the more that content will be shown to more people. When you comment on something on the I Am UU page, not only will Facebook show that post to more of our fans, but it might mention that you commented to friends of yours who like the page.

You now know what we know. Share it with your friends and your congregations. Unitarian Universalist themed pages need you to be aware of how you can help us stay visible and relevant on Facebook. We are proud to be able to say that several people each year choose to seek out a local UU congregation because they found our page through a friend. That couldn’t happen without the support and interaction of the amazing community we’ve built up. The changes to Facebook mean that it might happen less often unless we can convince you to spend more time with us when we do pop up. Please remember that we read every comment and even most public shares of our posts and we really do respond to the feedback we get. We care about how we can better fulfill our mission.

One last tip for the folks running a Congregational Facebook page of any sort:

Have a group. Because of changes to Facebook, groups are very important for keeping your community connected and engaged. I don’t want to explain it all in this post, which is already longer than I like; if there is a call for it, I will talk about Groups next week.


This post is made possible by readers like You!

The I Am UU project aims to be a public service. As such we provide lots of free content and support for Unitarian Universalists and UU Churches. This support is paid for by people just like you who find value in what we do. If you see this value, please consider either a one-time thank-you gift or a monthly pledge to keep the lights on and the coffee brewing.

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