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Facebook’s Latest Data Science Insight: Sharing Ain’t Always Caring

In new study, Facebook’s science team says the company killed automatic sharing on “Offers” because the science said active sharing works better.

A few weeks ago, Facebook killed off a feature that automatically shared with “friends” when you’d taken advantage of a Facebook “Offer” – a mechanism for brands to post coupons. Now, the sharing no longer happens automatically.  Instead, you get a button that you must hit in order to “Tell Friends” about that free pizza you scored.

Some media reports confidently asserted that Facebook wanted to avoid angering its members by sharing e-commerce events that could be seen as embarrassing or intrusive. Comparisons were made to the 2009 “Beacon” fiasco, in which Facebook started post your purchasing activity on sites like Blockbuster and Overstock.com on your Facebook profile. Mayhem and lawsuits ensued. 

But the real answer to the riddle of who killed automatic sharing is this: the data science did it.   Facebook’s data science team–profiled last year by our own Tom Simonite (see “What Facebook Knows”)—is now out with a new study revealing that when we voluntarilty share something (such as by “Liking” a page, or other similar action elsewhere) it’s often more likely to gain more viral traction overall, even if four or five times more people would have seen the automatic share.

They specifically studied this phenomena as it pertained to “Offers.”  Bottom line: “Our results show that active sharing enables a selection effect that exposes peers who are more likely to adopt than the population exposed under passive sharing.” This is intuitive. We listen to our friends, and we hate spam.  The paper will be presented at a conference next month, but anyone wanting to know what kind of sharing gains traction, and what does not, can read it here.

I had a chance to talk to Eytan Bakshy of Facebook’s data-science team yesterday. He sees the paper as more of an exposition of the pros and cons of each type of sharing than a final word that only active sharing is best.  Understanding the nuances is nontrivial: we already know that when news that friends have voted is presented on Facebook’s home page— it can drive hundreds of thousands of additional people to vote (see “How Facebook Drove Voters to the Polls”).  So it’s probably worth reading what Bakshy, NYU’s Sinan Aral and a student, Sean Taylor, have come up with this time.

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