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One of Facebook's specialties lies in creating the illusion of engaging with the public — and reaping the PR benefits thereof — while mitigating its exposure as much as possible.
One of Face­book’s special­ties lies in creat­ing the illu­sion of engag­ing with the public — and reap­ing the PR bene­fits thereof — while miti­gat­ing its expo­sure as much as possi­ble.

Our most recent case study can be found with its Hard Ques­tions blog, wherein Face­book offers its stance on thorny issues like The Russia Stuff and, most recently, the ques­tion that may even­tu­ally lead to its down­fall: “Is Spend­ing Time on Social Media Bad for Us?”

These posts have drawn plenty of scrutiny — rightly so — but few have noticed that the blog itself is struc­tured to offer the semblance of discourse, and little further. First, a few things to note:

  • Of the half-dozen post cate­gories gener­ated by Face­book’s News­room — includ­ing Company News and vari­ous FYIs — only Hard Ques­tions includes comments at all.
  • Hard Ques­tions use Face­book’s blog discus­sion prod­uct, Face­book Comments. Duh.
  • By default, Face­book Comments orders the discus­sion by ‘Social’ (AKA ‘Top’). This means comments with the most Likes, comments, and inef­fa­ble social voodoo are put at the top of the list.

It is surpris­ing, then, that Hard Ques­tions sorts comments chrono­log­i­cally (i.e. “Oldest” first). This quaintly recalls a more inno­cent time before our present era of algo­rithms. But it was also a delib­er­ate choice, and it is hard to think of any ratio­nale beyond the obvi­ous: Face­book does­n’t want to spur debate.

After all, the whole point of socially-ranked comments is to foster discus­sion. Here’s how Face­book put it when it intro­duced the feature way back in 2011:1

The upgraded Comments Box uses social signals to surface the high­est qual­ity comments for each user. Comments are ordered to show users the most rele­vant comments from friends, friends of friends, and the most liked or active discus­sion threads…”

With­out this algo­rith­mic sort­ing, the most active comments are usually buried. This obvi­ously reduces the number of read­ers who see them — and the like­li­hood that any comment will snow­ball toward a crit­i­cal mass of Likes that would demand a response from our big blue over­lords.

(One reason­able counter-argu­ment: algo­rith­mic sort­ing of comments on contro­ver­sial topics may lead to dump­ster fires of discourse, but that is hardly a case Face­book wants to make about its own prod­uct).

One can nearly envi­sion the conver­sa­tion between Face­book’s PR exec­u­tives, debat­ing whether they should include comments at all:

Caryn: “So we’re saying we want to be ‘more open and account­able’. Maybe we should enable comments? It might look bad other­wise.”

Elliot: “Hmm. Good point. Is there a way to do it with less account­abil­ity?”

Fittingly, Face­book did not respond to a request for comment.

This post warrants a disclo­sure: I have one of the top comments on the afore­men­tioned Hard Ques­tion about social media toxi­c­ity — but only when you sort by ‘Top Social’ — which is why I noticed this. There may be a little ego involved.

  1. I covered the prod­uct for TechCrunch the day it launched, which is why I remem­ber this.

Hard Questions, Soft Answers