Activity streams, personalization, and beliefs about our social neighborhood

Every person who logs into Facebook is met with the same interface but with personalized content. This interface is News Feed, which lists “news stories” generated by users’ Facebook friend. These news stories include the breaking news that Andrew was just tagged in a photo, that Neema declared he is a fan of a particular corporation, that Ellen joined a group expressing support for a charity, and that Alan says, “currently enjoying an iced coffee… anyone want to see a movie tonight?”

News Feed is an example of a particular design pattern that has recently become quite common – the activity stream. An activity stream aggregates actions of a set of individuals – such as a person’s egocentric social network – and displays the recent and/or interesting ones.

I’ve previously analysed, in a more fine-grained analysis of a particular (and now changed) interface element for setting one’s Facebook status message, how activity streams bias our beliefs about the frequency of others’ participation on social network services (SNSs). It works like this:

  • We use availability to mind as a heuristic for estimating probability and frequency (Kahneman & Tversky, 1973). So if it is easier to think of a possibility, we judge it to be more likely or frequent. This heuristic is often helpful, but it also leads to bias due to, e.g., recent experience, search strategy (compare thinking of words starting with ‘r’ versus words with ‘r’ as the third letter).
  • Activity streams show a recent subset of the activity available (think for now of a simple activity stream, like that on one’s Twitter home page).
  • Activity streams show activity that is more likely to be interesting and is more likely to have comments on it.

Through the availability heuristic (and other mechanisms) this leads to one to estimate that (1) people in one’s egocentric network are generating activity on Facebook more frequently than they actually are and (2) stories with particular characteristics (e.g., comments on them) are more (or less) common in one’s egocentric network than they actually are.

Personalized cultivation

When thinking about this in the larger picture, one can see this as a kind of cultivation effect of algorithmic selection processes in interpersonal media. According to cultivation theory (see Williams, 2006, for an application to MMORGs), our long-term exposure to media makes leads us to see the real world through the lens of the media world; this exposure gradually results in beliefs about the world based on the systematic distortions of the media world (Gerbner et al., 1980). For example, heavy television viewing predicts giving more “television world” answers to questions — overestimating the frequency of men working in law enforcement and the probability of experiencing violent acts. A critical difference here is that with activity streams, similar cultivation can occur with regard to our local social and cultural neighborhood.

Aims of personalization

Automated personalization has traditionally focused on optimizing for relevance – keep users looking, get them clicking for more information, and make them participate related to this relevant content. But the considerations here highlight another goal of personalization: personalization for strategic influence on attitudes that matter for participation. These goals can be in tension. For example, should the system present…

The most interesting and relevant photos to a user?

Showing photographs from a user’s network that have many views and comments may result in showing photos that are very interesting to the user. However, seeing these photos can lead to inaccurate beliefs about how common different kinds of photos are (for example, overestimating the frequency of high-quality, artistic photos and underestimating the frequency of “poor-quality” cameraphone photos). This can discourage participation through perceptions of the norms for the network or the community.

On the other hand, seeing photos with so many comments or views may lead to overestimating how many comments one is likely to get on one’s own photo; this can result in disappointment following participation.

Activity from a user’s closest friends?

Assume that activity from close friends is more likely to be relevant and interesting. It might even be more likely to prompt participation, particularly in the form of comments and replies. But it can also bias judgments of likely audience: all those people I don’t know so well are harder to bring to mind as is, but if they don’t appear much in the activity stream for my network, I’m less likely to consider them when creating my content. This could lead to greater self-disclosure, bad privacy experiences, poor identity management, and eventual reduction in participation.


Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorielli, N. (1980). The “Mainstreaming” of America: Violence Profile No. 11. Journal of Communication, 30(3), 10-29.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.

Williams, D. (2006). Virtual Cultivation: Online Worlds, Offline Perceptions. Journal of Communication, 56, 69-87.

Update your Facebook status: social comparison and the availability heuristic

[Update: This post uses an older Facebook UI as an example. Also see more recent posts on activity streams and the availability heuristic.]

Over at Captology Notebook, the blog of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, Enrique Allen considers features of Facebook that influence users to update their status. Among other things, he highlights how Facebook lowers barriers to updating by giving users a clear sense of something they can right (“What are you doing right now?”).

I’d like to add another part of the interface for consideration: the box in the left box of the home page that shows your current status update with the most recent updates of your friends.
Facebook status updates

This visual association of my status and the most recent status updates of my friends seems to do at least a couple things:

Influencing the frequency of updates. In this example, my status was updated a few days ago. On the other hand, the status updates from my friends were each updated under an hour ago. This juxtaposes my stale status with the fresh updates of my peers. This can prompt comparison between their frequency of updates and mine, encouraging me to update.

The choice of the most recent updates by my Facebook friends amplifies this effect. Through automatic application of the availability heuristic, this can make me overestimate how recently my friends have updated their status (and thus the frequency of status updates). For example, the Facebook friend who updated their status three minutes ago might have not updated to three weeks prior. Or many of my Facebook friends may not frequently update their status messages, but I only see (and thus have most available to mind) the most recent. This is social influence through enabling and encouraging biased social comparison with — in a sense — an imagined group of peers modeled on those with the most recent performances of the target behavior (i.e., updating status).

Influencing the content of updates. In his original post, Enrique mentions how Facebook ensures that users have the ability to update their status by giving them a question that they can answer. Similarly, this box also gives users examples from their peers to draw on.

Of course, this can all run up against trouble. If I have few Facebook friends, none of them update their status much, or those who do update their status are not well liked by me, this comparison may fail to achieve increased updates.

Consider this interface in comparison to one that either

  • showed recent status updates by your closest Facebook friends, or
  • showed recent status updates and the associated average period for updates of your Facebook friends that most frequently update their status.

[Update: While the screenshot above is from the “new version” of Facebook, since I captured it they have apparently removed other people’s updates from this box on the home page, as Sasha pointed out in the comments. I’m not sure why they would do this, but here are couple ideas:

  • make lower items in this sidebar (right column) more visable on the home page — including the ad there
  • emphasize the filter buttons at the top of the news feed (left column) as the means to seeing status updates.

Given the analysis in the original post, we can consider whether this change is worth it: does this decrease status updates? I wonder if Facebook did a A-B test of this: my money would be on this significantly reducing status updates from the home page, especially from users with friends who do update their status.]

Laptop + shopping cart = mobile

This guy can roll up with laptop and webcam to record robots (photo CC from violetblue):

But in Silicon Valley, combining laptops and shopping carts is just a way to get chores done. When at Whole Foods in Los Altos, I saw a man pushing a shopping cart with a laptop in the part where you can sit your toddler. I suppose he was reading a recipe or something. (I, and I’m sure other Valley folks, do that on a phone.)

A bit odd, but then again, I used to be (I’ve fallen off a bit) judicious about capturing the contents of my shopping cart with ZoneTag.