What will catch the eye in Trend­ing?

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - CAITLIN DEWEY

WASH­ING­TON: A sin­gle word change in Face­book Trend­ing can de­ter­mine whether mil­lions bother to read the news therein.

Would you click “Tulsa, Okla.” or “Tulsa po­lice shoot­ing”? “Tax Foun­da­tion” or “Trump Tax Plan”? These ex­am­ples sur­faced dur­ing The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Septem­ber au­dit of Trend­ing top­ics, the Face­book fea­ture that at­tempts to list the day’s most pop­u­lar news. Dur­ing work hours from Au­gust 31 to Septem­ber 21, we logged ev­ery news story that trended on Face­book across four sep­a­rate ac­counts.

Our find­ings should be taken as demon­stra­tive, not con­clu­sive, as Face­book per­son­alises its trend­ing mod­ule to each in­di­vid­ual user.

Still, we found a range of nam­ing con­ven­tions, all des­tined to in­flu­ence the reach of their news ar­ti­cles. If only one in 20 US Face­book users re­ceived news from Trend­ing, the fea­ture would still com­mand an au­di­ence of nearly 9.5 mil­lion.

Gen­er­ally, Trend­ing top­ics tend to have proper names. These typ­i­cally cor­re­spond with the sub­ject of their news story, but in some cases they do not: a vi­ral comic about cli­mate change trended, for in­stance, un­der the name of its au­thor, Ran­dall Mun­roe.

On Septem­ber 20, an anal­y­sis of Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump’s tax plan trended un­der “Tax Foun­da­tion”, a phrase al­most guar­an­teed to re­pel main­stream in­ter­est.

Crime sto­ries tend to get non-stan­dard names: some­times it’s the city where it hap­pened; some­times it’s a de­scrip­tion of the crime.

Where Face­book pre­vi­ously had an ed­i­to­rial team tasked with rewrit­ing vague or in­ac­cu­rate topic names, power re­cently shifted to an al­go­rithm. As Trend­ing con­tin­ues to evolve, the main chal­lenge may be how to get “the sys­tem” to more per­fectly pre­dict the com­plex ex­pec­ta­tions of hu­mans. – Wash­ing­ton Post

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