Over the past week, Facebook was the center of controversy regarding its purported manipulation of the Trending Topics section.
At issue was a report published on tech blog Gizmodo alleging bias in the way Facebook manages Trending Topics results. Based on an internal document detailing “Trending Review Guidelines,” many users contend that Facebook purposefully manipulated the topics to exclude conservative news.
What are Trending Topics?
If you’re accessing Facebook through a browser, these topics traditionally appear in list form on the right-hand side of the window. They appear in a slightly different format on mobile devices.
The feature was added in 2014, separate from the News Feed, and offer a general topic list as well as topics based on politics, entertainment, sports and technology. Results are generated based on popular conversation topics and personalized for each user.
“Trending Topics is designed to help people discover major events and meaningful conversations,” said Justin Osofsky, vice president of Facebook’s global operations. “Topics that are eligible to appear ... are surfaced by our algorithms, not people.”
The problem with Osofsky’s last comment is that algorithms are codes generated by programmers, and programmers are people.
Anyone who knows programming knows algorithms can be manipulated to produce different results. Simply put, if a Facebook programmer changed something in the Trending Topics algorithm, the results would probably change.
The team managing the Trending feed uses a set of guidelines meant to ensure the product is “consistent with Facebook’s deep commitment to being a platform for people of all viewpoints,” Osofsky added.
“The guidelines demonstrate that we have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum.”
According to the Facebook news site, here’s how the Trending Topics algorithm works:
The list of Trending Topics is personalized for each Facebook user.
This “personalization” algorithm relies on a number of factors, including the importance of the topic, pages and other content a user has liked, geographical location, feedback and what’s trending across Facebook overall.
Osofsky said, “Not everyone sees the same topics at the same time.”
Click on a topic and you move to a results page that includes all posts covering that topic, including relevant news sources. Just as the algorithm generates the list of trending topics, an algorithm generates the topic search results.
“Trending is also integrated into Facebook Search so you can search for any topic that may not show up in your Trending suggestions,” Osofsky noted.
Earlier in the week, Tom Stocky, Facebook’s vice president of search, said that the social media platform does not “insert stories artificially into Trending Topics.”
But Stocky’s comment actually contradicts Osofsky’s description of the role of the Trending Topics teams. For example, Facebook’s internal document shows three teams: editorial, topic detection and content ranking.
The very fact that teams oversee editorial control and rankings suggests Facebook is indeed attempting to serve a gatekeeper function.
One of my all-time favorite movies is “Contact.”
The movie, based on the book “Contact” by Carl Sagan, stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey.
The plot revolves around a major discovery by Dr. “Ellie” Arroway, played by Foster. Ellie, a scientist with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program, discovers a signal from a distant planet that proves we’re not alone.
It’s the opening scene that sucks me in every time, when a young Ellie is encouraged by her father to explore the stars.
Ellie asks, “Dad, do you think there are people on other planets?”
Her father replies, “I don’t know ... if it is just us ... seems like an awful waste of space.”
As a kid, I was fascinated with space. My favorite star chart was a rotating circle set to my position on Earth. Set the chart to your coordinates, look down at the circle and look up to see the constellations.
It’s also one of the things I remember about my limited conversations with my father. He was sick most of my life, but he loved looking at the stars with me. In his own way, he encouraged me to stargaze and to wonder about what else was out there.
My attraction to space has only grown, and I’m passing down that fascination to my kids.
Or at least I think I am. Maybe I’m just annoying them.
Either way, it gives us time to connect, to ask questions, to explore.
Except now, with this generation, we have apps on our iPads and smartphones for stargazing. The good apps are packed full of interesting images, charts and information.
I asked my friend, Dr. Patrick Durrell, professor and director of the Ward Beecher Planetarium at Youngstown State University, about his favorite apps for stargazing.
“I have two stargazing apps on my iPad,” Durrell said. “Sky Guide and Sky Safari.”
“Both are good, and they allow you to see the sky in the direction in which you hold your phone,” Durrell added. “This can help with locating specific objects with the naked eye.”
Sky Guide, from Fifth Star Labs, was a 2014 Apple Design Award Winner.
“Sky Guide has great features like constellation outlines, locations of various celestial objects, and you can tap on objects to get more information,” Durrell said.
Sky Guide is available for Apple products and costs $2.99.
My kids’ favorite Sky Guide feature is night vision. When activated, the app changes their view to a red background to help their little eyes focus on the stars and not on the glow from the iPad. This is important for kids who have a difficult time switching their focus between screen and sky.
Sky Safari is another of Durrell’s favorites and is available for both Apple and Android devices for a small fee.
“Sky Safari has a lot of options to really customize the view,” Durrell said. “I really like the constellation outlines, and in Sky Safari they are from the old H. A. Rey outlines that I grew up with.”
If you’re looking for something more, Sky Safari offers “plus” and “pro” versions for $14.99 and $34.99, respectively.
You can follow Durrell on Twitter at @PatrickDurrell.
The girl who traded for truck.
Hot guy in Sharpsville laundry mat.
Saw you at the gun range.
These are just a few of the subject lines appearing on the Youngstown Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” page within the past week. Of course, there are many more, and a thousand such postings appear on Craigslist sites every day around the world.
Craigslist, better known for its free and modest fee-based classified advertisements, offers sections for postings that range from job announcements and real estate to other “for sale” items, community events and discussion forums.
The link to Missed Connections appears as a subsection of the Personal ads, and they tend to be the most intriguing for the casual reader. Other sections include the traditional “men seeking women,” “men seeking men,” “women seeking men” and so on.
Other subsections include “strictly platonic” and “rants and raves.”
If you go to Craigslist to look at postings in other Personal ad subsections, brace yourself. Some are honest-to-goodness singles searching for love, but many others are a little seedier.
You’ve been warned.
The notoriety of Missed Connections has made its way into comedy routines and musicals. “Dating Sucks,” a musical written by Youngstown’s Robert Dennick Joki, boasts a song written almost entirely centered on these posts, and Comedian Nick Thune’s song “Missed Connections” on Comedy Central is a must-see.
The subsection is more than 10 years old, but it’s nonetheless fascinating. Just like other Personal ads, the context for these posts usually revolves around two people.
A few posts reminded me of plots from movies such as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “An Affair to Remember.” With a little luck, a twist of fate, and a Craigslist post, true love wins.
When I asked my Facebook friends about their use of the Missed Connections section, one friend commented, “I used to [post] often. And I once had one posted about me.”
Another friend commented, “I had a friend who was posted about. It was funny because he worked at a grocery store, and another customer said, ‘You’re the guy!’ and explained the missed connections post about him working at the deli in this grocery store.”
With most missed connections, the scope of that initial contact varies.
Some couples might share a glance on a train, while others actually meet and connect (for purposeful lack of a better term). The connection is fleeting, but at least one person wants to reconnect. Unfortunately, no contact information is ever shared.
Of course, the odds of making the connection are astronomical. First, you must assume this person will read your post. Second, you must assume this person is single (or not), living in the area (or not), and is just as interested in meeting you as you are in meeting them based on some random online post.
In reality, you stand a better chance of meeting that person again by just showing up in the same location, on the same day, for the next month or so.
Here’s hoping the odds are in your favor.
Two tickets on StubHub for the Steelers-Bengals games set us back $350. Parking was $60. Figure in $150 for gas, food and drinks, and the total cost for an afternoon at Heinz Field was more than $550.
That was the least expensive game of the season.
My wife and I are sports fans, and we crave the stadium experience. But the discretionary income of our middle-class lifestyle affords only two or three games a season.
Of course, there are other costs: baby sitters, commute to the stadium, obnoxiously intoxicated fans (both friend and foe).
For some fans, access to the stadium experience is both physically and financially out of reach. For other fans, the stadium experience is simply undesirable, regardless of the sport. As ticket, parking and other prices skyrocket, fans look for other options for viewing.
Watching at home on a large, high-definition screen is an option, but it lacks the social experience of the stadium. The sports bar is another option, but tends to favor those who want to drink, eat and interact with inebriated fans.
Fans who want the social experience without leaving home soon will have the next best thing: the virtual experience. Virtual reality, or VR, is no longer the stuff of science-fiction films and television. VR is – for lack of a better word – reality, thanks in large part to the innovations of pioneering startups all over the world.
Like the stadium experience, VR is inaccessible for the typical fan. Headsets and access are costly, but that hasn’t stopped the NFL and other leagues from beta testing the sports viewing experience.
Like those large, high-definition screens, it won’t be long before VR devices are financially accessible.
There are a few big players in the VR field, including one of Facebook’s newest acquisition, Oculus. However, one of the rising stars in the VR sports arena is NextVR.
During the 2015 NFL season, NextVR recorded three games. At the Super Bowl “fan experience” convention, fans watched those games in VR from different angles. They were recordings, but NextVR is already offering VR livestreams.
NextVR livestreamed the opening game of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. They’re already working with Fox Sports to offer VR streams for NASCAR. During March Madness, they livestreamed the entire Big East tournament.
It’s just the tip of the VR sports iceberg.
According to NextVR, they have 23 patents granted or pending for their VR tech that focus on content, delivery, transmission and playback. NextVR claims to be “capable of transmitting live high definition, three- dimensional virtual reality content ... delivering a completely immersive and lifelike experience.”
Like ticket prices, the cost of VR tech is out of range for most fans. However, the market is poised to explode in the next few years. Evidence for this is found on Angel List, a site that links tech startups with tech investors.
Last month, the list of VR startups on Angel List included more than 400 new VR ventures with an average valuation of $5.2 million.
The technology is here; it’s expensive, and we’re just getting a taste for how big it can be for the sports fan experience.
Better yet, it looks like a real solution for fans who want the social sports experience, but who can’t (or won’t) go to the stadium.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.