He wore an adorably too-short haircut and a dimpled smile. Brown freckles trickled over his nose and pink cheeks. And his tiny hands proudly grasped a homemade “First Day of Kindergarten” sign that would’ve made any Pinterest crafter scowl with envy.
But I couldn’t do it.
I just couldn’t “Like” one more picture shared by a friend who’s not really a friend but is my Friend, according to Facebook.
Am I anti-kid or anti-cute? Nah. I just knew from past experience that by clicking “Like,” I would start seeing more Facebook posts from a person I barely know.
Yes, we grew up together and, no, she’s not some political blowhard who shares extreme, cringe-worthy posts. But I haven’t seen the girl since we graduated high school in 1998, and I prefer reading Facebook posts from people I actually know — or at least who I’ve seen in, say, the past five years.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, the ex-boyfriend of my former roommate who moved to Denver and regularly shares smart, thoughtful news stories — he can stay. And the college friend whose self-deprecating baby updates make me chortle — she can stay. And the wife of my husband’s friend whose posts should be turned into a best-selling book about juggling a too-busy life — she can stay, too.
You see, the engineers who work on Facebook News Feed face a giant challenge: Keeping the Denver smarty’s stories while dumping the high school classmate’s kid photos and still telling you about friends’ big events.
This delicate balance is handled by a machine-learning algorithm. In short, it looks for your subtle and obvious indications to know what you do and don’t like seeing in your News Feed. Like any algorithm, it gets things wrong.
But what do we really know about its triggers? I asked Facebook for more details about the cause and effect of my behavior in News Feed to figure out why things happen the way they do. The answers were pretty interesting — some were even “Like”-worthy.
Why do I keep seeing the same post appear at the top of my News Feed? I didn’t “Like” it the first time around, so I shouldn’t have to see it the next time I open Facebook. Why is Facebook nagging me to like something?
This can happen if a post in your News Feed generates a conversation with contributions from some of your friends, especially the people you interact with most often or people you manually added to your “Close Friends” list. Facebook understands that you didn’t click “Like” the first time around, but thinks you may want to see the post again because of the back-and-forth comments about it from your friends.
What signs does Facebook interpret as positive or negative, and what does it do with those indications?
Facebook interprets your positive reaction to something when you “Like,” comment, share someone’s post, click on a photo to make it bigger or click on a link that someone shared to see another website. Generally speaking, this behavior results in Facebook showing you more of that person’s content.
Not a fan of something you saw in your News Feed? While you can’t find an “Unlike” button in Facebook, you can come pretty close to it. Click on the drop-down arrow to the right of someone’s name to find a menu of options from which to select your degree of dislike.
Unfollow [name of person whose post bugs you] is the most direct way of changing what you see in your News Feed. (In the past, this was Hide all from [name of person or website], but Facebook changed this phrase, and it now sounds less dramatic.) If you change your mind about the decision to Unfollow someone, you can always go back to a person’s Facebook profile page and click Follow to once again see their posts.
Another negative indicator in this same menu is I don’t want to see this, which hides the post and gives you a chance to say why you don’t want to see something, like it’s annoying or not interesting, you don’t think it should be on Facebook, it’s spam, and so on. Don’t worry: You can choose to undo this, too.
I don’t have time to go through my whole News Feed, manually marking what I don’t want to see. Is there a shortcut?
Yes. Add people to your list of Acquaintances to see less from them. This isn’t as extreme as choosing to Unfollow someone. And don’t worry about missing a friend’s big news: Facebook still surfaces important posts that lots of people “Like” or comment on, so you won’t have to be blindsided when you run into Aunt Margie and find out she’s engaged.
Sometimes I see News Feed posts that were originally shared two or three days ago, according to their timestamps. What gives?
If you didn’t read your News Feed when a story originally posted — or didn’t scroll far enough to get to it — you may see that story at a later date. This is especially true if there aren’t many new posts from friends in your News Feed, and/or if you tend to read through your News Feed often. Facebook pulls content from further back in time to show fresh posts that you haven’t yet read. But this doesn’t make it any less confusing when, on Monday morning, you see a friend’s check-in at a pumpkin patch on Saturday.
Funny enough, as of last spring Facebook said its users see only about 20% of the total posts or photos shared by their friends.
It feels like I see the same content in my News Feed at certain times of day. Is this actually happening, or am I losing it?
Facebook uses time of day as a signal — but only in general ways. The company is exploring more personalized ways to use time of day as it pertains to individual habits. For example, if you always read news stories in the morning, News Feed could show you more news stories.
How specific can News Feed get? Can it tell that I click on articles from Slate rather than articles from BuzzFeed? Can it tell what kinds of articles I like within a site?
News Feed learns from past patterns — like who shares a link, what site the link is from and if you usually click those kinds of links, whether shared by a person or by the site itself. If these factors check out, you’ll see more posts from that person or site — even more stories that are similar to the ones you’ve clicked on and read in the past.
If the step of unfriending seems too extreme but you aren’t seeing posts you want to find on Facebook, take the time to tweak your News Feed so it fits you better.
You might just “Like” it.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.