The white picket fence

The end of the web

When Tim Berners-Lee launched the Web twenty years ago he envisioned a system where “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere.” In a December, 2010 article in Scientific American Berners-Lee wrote that “Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web.”

On the open web, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal are equal to Joe’s Hometown Blog and equally accessible to anybody with an internet connection. In white picket fence gardens these websites are not equal. How pages appear in search results is the product of an algorithm which decides what a user wants to see, and how often regardless of what a user really wants.

Facebook employs a proprietary algorithm called EdgeRank to determine how content is seen in the garden. Business Insider published a list of ten criteria used to calculate a user’s edge rank including how that piece of content will impact a user, the user’s relationship to the content creator and time. Where W3 has no means of ranking pages, the first page a user encounters on Facebook, the News Feed, is based entirely on EdgeRank.

News Feed and EdgeRank are evolving, today the options are “Top News” and “Most Recent” but that was not always the case. In an October 23, 2009 announcement on the Facebook Blog, a company managed page of platform developments, Raylene Yung described two different views for what a user would see after logging in. In her post Yung outlines the “News Feed” and the “Live Feed,” where the former is more equivalent to Top News and the latter is current happenings in real time.

Today both “Top News” and “Most Recent” are part of the “News Feed,” but the “Live Feed” might be making a return, The Wall Street Journal reports that marketers and companies are looking to see more of their advertisements and interactions with those advertisements appear in users news feed and Facebook is looking to add an unfiltered feed to the user’s options.

A decision to add an unfiltered option back to “News Feed” similar to the “Live Feed” signals a shift away from the dominance of EdgeRank as a means for filtering content based on past user habits, however with an average of 210 connections per user that feed will be complicated, fast paced, and dense leaving its usability, and market penetration in question until after launch and diffusion of the product.

For non-personal content creators including news organizations an unfiltered feed creates a greater opportunity for a user to encounter content since it is no longer based on previous actions if they have chosen to “Like” a page, or a friend “Likes” or comments on a particular piece of content. Benefits of this system are not content creator’s alone, but Facebook continues to benefit from an unfiltered feed where users have a greater chance of engaging with content since it creates an opportunity where users will stay on site more and create more user generated content in response to other posts on the site. Combined these two factors give users more of a reason to stay inside the garden where marginally more value is given to the user who then in turn creates content more to receive positive reactions from other members inside the garden from which Facebook is the greatest beneficiary.

On the surface, EdgeRank appears identical to Google’s PageRank system used to display relevant pages after a web user’s search but the two systems cannot be more different. Google describes PageRank as:

a technology that determined the “importance” of a webpage by looking at what other pages link to it, as well as other data. Today we use more than 200 signals, including PageRank, to order websites, and we update these algorithms on a weekly basis. For example, we offer personalized search results based on your web history and location.

Both systems rank, however Google ranks webpages on the open web and then displays them to users who express a potential interest in those pages, alternatively Facebook takes all content of a user’s connections and then displays them in a feed where the user decides from that content what to read.

The key difference between the two systems is that Google orders content after a user decided what content to see, Facebook orders content before a user chooses what type of content to view.

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