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 /

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 /

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.