Technologizer

How Facebook Ruined Comments (at Least for Me)

A few weeks ago, Facebook switched things up in a way that briefly left me wondering if I was going prematurely senile. Now that I more or less understand what's going on, I'm an unhappy camper.

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Unlike some folks, I’m not reflexively opposed to major Facebook changes. Oftentimes, when the service switches things around — which it does more or less continuously — I find the new version to be an improvement. Or at least I understand what it’s trying to do.

But a few weeks ago, Facebook switched things up in a way that briefly left me wondering if I was going prematurely senile. Now that I more or less understand what’s going on, I’m an unhappy camper. For the first time, the company has instituted a change that meaningfully lessens my enjoyment of Facebook — and there’s no way for me to undo it.

It gets weirder: it turns out that the change I can’t stand is something I was initially happy to hear was arriving. It’s called Replies, and it lets folks respond to specific comments that other members leave on an update, thereby creating individual threads rather than one master list of comments on an item. That change is long overdue.

Here’s the thing, though. The feature doesn’t simply permit threaded comments. It also attempts to rearrange comments to put the best ones at the top. That’s the part that’s driving me bonkers.

To quote from Facebook’s blog post about the Replies feature:

Conversation threads are reordered by relevance to viewers, and may appear differently to each person based on their connections, specifically:

  • Positive Feedback: the amount of positive feedback based on the total number of Likes and Replies in a conversation thread, which includes Likes or Replies by the Page owner.
  • Connections: connections to participants in a thread may move the conversation higher. For example, conversations with Comments left by friends may appear at the top.
  • Negative Feedback: the total number of spam reports in a thread, as well as marks-as-spam made by the Page owner. We also may down-rank comments made by frequent spammers.

Got it? Threads with Likes and Replies are likely to bubble up; everyone may see different orders based on whom they’re friends with; spammers will be punished. It’s a little as if all the comments on a particular update were a tiny version of Reddit.

Facebook says it’s doing this so that “the most active and engaging conversations among your readers will be surfaced at the top of your posts ensuring that people who visit your Page will see the best conversations.”

The problem is that all the comments on an item — whether or not they’re threaded — add up to a conversation. That’s particularly true now, since Replies are new, not active on all areas of Facebook and aren’t supported by Facebook’s mobile versions. That means that many people — the vast majority, at least on my page — leave a top-level comment even if they’re responding to another comment. Which means that Facebook can’t shuffle the order without destroying context.

Here’s a post of mine, and the comments it inspired:

[image] Facebook Comments

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

The time stamps are, in the order that Facebook chose: 6:23 p.m., 6:25 p.m., 6:20 p.m., 7:05 p.m., 6:55 p.m., 6:11 p.m., 6:08 p.m., 6:07 p.m., 9:52 p.m., 8:34 p.m., 8:12 p.m., 7:26 p.m., 7:09 p.m., 6:23 p.m. In one case, one comment refers to another, but the order was flipped; in another, a bunch of comments got inserted in between one comment and another that references it.

Note that even though my Profile now lets my friends and followers reply to a particular comment on my update, nobody did in this instance. They just added their comments to the main thread — even they referenced a previous one — which is why the conversation flow devolved into gibberish.

Would this new approach work if everybody religiously replied to specific comments rather than responding as part of the top-level discussion? I don’t think so. For one thing, all the rearranging still makes it practically impossible to figure out which comments you have and haven’t read.

For another, even if everything were more carefully threaded, it’s not a bunch of stand-alone conversations. All the comments are traceable back to the update that kicked off the discussion. And many of them are informed by one or more preceding comments even if they don’t make explicit reference to them. (It might be different if one of my updates prompted hundreds or thousands of comments from utter strangers, like a hot Reddit item, but they never do.)

Basically: shuffling all the comments on one item is like cutting up a movie script, mixing up the dialogue and expecting it to still make sense.

When I first saw Facebook comments rearranged this way, I was just plain confused. Then I thought it might be a bug — in part because it only seemed to be happening sporadically. It turns out that the change doesn’t affect most personal Profiles. Instead, it’s only applicable to Pages — like the one for TIME — and for individuals with more than 10,000 followers, who Facebook thinks are likely have active communities on their pages.

Aha — at the time Facebook instituted the change, I had slightly over 10,000 followers, although all but about 800 of them had actually followed a Tech News list created by technology evangelist Robert Scoble. (At the moment, Facebook says I have 20,288 followers, but I don’t understand its math.)

None of this would matter if the new format were optional. For Pages, at the moment, it is: it only takes effect if the Page’s manager turns it on. (Facebook doesn’t plan to switch it on for everybody until July 10.) But for individuals with 10,000 or more followers, the changes happened automatically in March with no way to opt out and, as far as I know, no explicit notification of what was going on.

(Will Facebook eventually switch to this format everywhere, including on Profiles of members with fewer than 10,000 followers? It isn’t saying.)

Anyhow, I cheerfully acknowledge that Facebook’s overarching goal isn’t to please me, or the people who visit my Profile. But I wonder how many Facebook users the new format is pleasing, period. I checked out the comments on Facebook’s post announcing the changes, and the vast majority aren’t from fans.

Here are the comments that are currently at the top — which means that they’re the ones that Facebook’s algorithm judged to be best, as reflected in evidence like the number of Likes and Comments they’ve received:

[image] Facebook Comments

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

There are several ways that Facebook could address these gripes that fall short of undoing the changes altogether. It could let the person in charge of a Page or Profile choose to revert to old-style comments. Or it could add the ability to flip between the new “improved” format and chronological order, as Reddit does. Or it could disassociate the threaded Replies from the Reddit-like reshuffling, and make the later change optional. Or it could allow individuals like me to opt out, regardless of how many followers we have.

To end on an optimistic note: I think there’s a good chance that Facebook will get this right, sooner or later, one way or another. When you like something about Facebook, you shouldn’t get too comfortable, since it might change. But the flip side of that is that things you don’t like about Facebook may also be less than permanent facts of life. And with the service not planning to roll this out to all Pages until July 10, it has almost two months to tweak it before it’s more widespread. Here’s hoping.

24 comments
7heather
7heather

You can turn off the ability for people to reply to comments. It's in the Settings, second to last option. 

what
what

I noticed this just now and it is utterly incompetent. Facebook is almost useless

SteveBlack
SteveBlack

Reordering has to stop. Until the computer is alive, it won't be able to manage this helpfully.

kulls2
kulls2

Sometimes what facebook does is irritating.. but we should not let it be taken too seriously because FB is just for fun.. to just chillout. So why worry. 

www.letsnurture.com

expatseek
expatseek

Pity FB, in its public company iteration, is becoming gradually less obvious about its new remit: not to let people communicate with each other, but to sell data to marketers and audiences to marketers. Pity. It was kinda cool for a while.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Once upon a time, we had snail mail.  It was slow, but it allowed people time to think about what they'd write - and they'd usually write by hand.

Then along came a Vice President, and we had the Internet.  Only it wasn't really the Internet.  It was a bulletin board service where people would post their mail for everyone else to see.  Eventually, they got this thing called "chat" and all was good.

Shortly thereafter someone invented iMail.  Or is it e-mail?  Anyhow, people could still think about what they'd write, but they'd do it by typing instead of by hand, and the delivery was much faster.

People saw this and thought it was good.

But no good thing lasts forever.

A college dropout took the chat feature, the bulletin board idea and the e-mail everyone used and put it all together and called it "Facebook".  People thought it was great!  Then people with money came along and said to the dropout, "We can make you wealthy, just let us use the information you get so we can get wealthy, too!"  And the dropout, being a dropout and not knowing any better, said, "Sure, wealthy dudes!"

So all of a sudden privacy settings were mysteriously not so private.  They became confusing.  They changed all the time.  And the way the people communicated kept changing.  And the way everything was done kept changing.  All in the name of money.

Soon, people began to realize that Facebook was very 1990's in its design.  It's a bulletin board with a shiny paint job, a touch of chat and some e-mail features.  Many hung their heads in shame that they would have fallen in love with such old technology.  Soon, people began to leave the service by the thousands each day.

In the end, the college dropout got wealthy, a billion people no longer had private lives and advertisers had a wealth of information to get even richer.

The moral of this little fairy tale is that anyone can take an idea, dress it up into something that looks different, sell it, sell out and get wealthy.  But the price is paid by everyone else who buys into it.

PS_webmaster
PS_webmaster

We had the same gripes about this change at our newspaper. I discovered you can turn off the reply format by going to Edit Page > Edit Settings and deselecting the checkbox labeled "Replies (Allow replies to comments on my Page.)."

KartikDayanand
KartikDayanand

I totally agree with every single point in this article. Facebook has made a mishmash of the entire commenting system. I disabled this on my page after using it for a couple of days. If you are saying that this is going to become the default, that really concerns me. All Facebook needs to do is to give an option to switch to chronological order of comments while retaining the reply feature. Wonder why they never thought of it earlier!

IntangibleGuy
IntangibleGuy

It seems to me that the editor still has no clue what FB is all about.

FB is about keeping USELESS & POINTLESS & FUTILE discussions and social interactions alive ...  just to keep members as long as possible on their site. It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do anything at all. Just click, click, click.

FB actually has never evolved beyond being a tool for teenagers. Except for scheduling meetings, appointments and all sorts of gatherings FB simply doesn't make any sense at all.

jamescopley
jamescopley

Unbelievable. That this bothers you to the point you have to write an enormous article about it. People are starving to death, but oh no - your Facebook comments are being arranged differently. Talk about a First-World problem. Grow up Harry.

JamesPorterGinther
JamesPorterGinther

I agree, context is crucial and FB messed up. I like the idea of gaming to top posts in some way to encourage well thought out comments. One way FB could do that is to put 5 red stars under the Hide/Report Spam button marked 1 to 5 for the top five comments. Click on one and go straight to that comment. The same red star could be added to the actual comment. That way the top liked, replied comment could be found fast. (obviously the stars could be blue to stick with FB colour choices) This way context is maintained and good posts are rewarded.

swildstrom
swildstrom

Facebook does not seem to understand the purpose of comments. They should be a conversation, not a popularity contest.

FrankEliason
FrankEliason

As usual, good assessment Harry! I would bet the reason for this is the negative commentary and span seen on advertisers posts. This will make sure those paying the bills see less of the we hate you comments. Everything I have seen from Facebook lately is less about user experience and more to protect the revenue

TimeFlexagon
TimeFlexagon

It should read : "the flipside of that is that things you don’t like about Facebook'S INTERFACE may also be less than permanent facts of life."

Facebook's Terms of (ab)Use are highly unlikeable, and they're not going away.

LCHayes
LCHayes

I administer a Facebook Page for a musician, and starting in March, we started getting an unusual increase in "likes."  Most do not appear to be real - either the profiles seem to be fabricated, or those of real individuals who have long abandoned a half-hearted attempt, but have now been recycled by others.  We've assumed that this activity was bot-generated, but since reading your article, and the mention that your "likes" have increased at around the same time as the change in replies, I'm wondering if  all are connected.  Like you, I don't normally despise change, but these latest "innovations" from FB have definitely made for a negative experience from this user.

righteousnessisme
righteousnessisme

They're all rich now. They don't have to think anymore. What do you expect?

RyanMerket
RyanMerket

The mobile app hasn't been updated with Replies yet... why is this even a story?

FF22
FF22

It's a design issue. In the threaded view Facebook should have killed the default comment box which let's people post root-level comments. That, because most comments are not independent, direct comments to the Facebook share itself, but replies to other comments. However people don't use the Reply link, because they've been accustomed for years to using said default comment box, and also because that box is always open by default, practically inviting people to write there, whereas the Reply links are not so much obvious.

If Facebook would have killed that default comment box, it would have forced people to use the Reply links, thus enabling a meaningful threaded representation of the discussion. People who would have wanted to post an original comment not related to other comments, but to the share itself could have used the Comment link right below the share.

That would have not solved all the issues with the threaded view, but at least would have eliminted one major pain. But then again, one wonders what took Facebook almost a decade to implement threaded comments, when all messages boards had that feature a the end of last century.