Dean Eckles on people, technology & inference

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.]

7 thoughts on “Update your Facebook status: social comparison and the availability heuristic

  1. I haven’t used xobni, so I’m not sure about all it’s features, but I think what I was suggesting for consideration is a bit different though related.

    xobni provides info about the sender of a message, including a bar chart of your communications with them over time.

    I was more thinking that it would be for some automatically selected set of people to be shown in that box. So instead of showing just the most recent updates overall, it would also say how frequently they update their status. This would potentially remove the bias toward thinking that people update their status more frequently: though someone just updated their status, they may not update it very often.

  2. Agreed, this was a clever aspect of the status box…social modeling comes to mind here as well. Interestingly, Facebook seems to have gotten rid of other people’s status on the homepage in the new design.

    I can imagine this not only decreases updates but decreases users clicking on “see all” to see others’ updates — there’s less pulling them in to be aware of the module anymore. After awhile they can easily become blind to “what are you doing now?” versus new status messages from friends which always provided novel content.

  3. Looks like overnight Facebook made the update status box in your face at the top of news feed. It’d be pretty hard to ignore it now, given its new prominence. Plus theres the new “filtered” news feed for status updates. Though that doesn’t show everyone’s status updates. You still have to navigate to the Friends page where the status updates are highlighted automatically.

  4. Thanks for the heads-up. This seems like a reasonable next step after the previous change, as it again makes it more prominent and makes it consistent in position with the status update box on the profile page.

    It still lacks status as an interesting dynamic element (even though it is prominent, why look at it each time you visit?), and (similarly) the direct juxtaposition of your status and the most recently updated statuses of your friends is still gone.

  5. I do believe that juxtaposing your status with your friends’ updates probably is more persuasive in getting one to update their own status. However, the prominent display (with large text) of the new status location should also be pretty convincing.

    The new design reminds me more of twitter. And with the summary news feed directly below it, Facebook might be banking on there being enough status updates intermixed with other news feed items to help inflate the number of status updates. Who knows, maybe they are working on an algorithm that intermixes the status updates more regularly. We’ve already seen that the summary news feed isn’t chronologically in order. So this could be acceptable from Facebook’s point of view.

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