Lurkers, Extroverts, And Ambassadors: As Facebook Upends Publishing World With New Ranking Algorithm, Here’s What Recent Research Says About The Social Giant And Engagement

By Lori Cameron and Michael Martinez
Published 01/30/2018
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Mark Zuckerberg

Now that Mark Zuckerberg defines social media success by your emotional involvement with content instead of its news value, Computer Society research in recent years generally validates the Facebook chief’s latest pivot on how to rank posts.

However, in researchers’ efforts to measure and improve the definition of good engagement, they emphasize the persisting perils for brands and Facebook alike, ranging from neurotic postings and passive online lurkers to the quixotic struggle for virality.

Facebook News Feed will now focus on the sharing of, and commenting on, content by individual users and their friends. The losers will be Big Media whose newsy posts will drop in ranking—unless audiences engage it. Recently faced with oversight controversies and Russian meddling on his platform, Zuckerberg now wants “to encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption.”

Leading academic and industry researchers writing for the Computer Society, which is the world’s premier nonprofit association for the computing profession, have been studying for years the importance and impact of Facebook and, more broadly, social media.

Here are the highlights of that peer-reviewed research culled from the Society’s Digital Library, available for free viewing through February 2018. (Abstracts are always free, too. For the full-length report, the research listed below is typically behind the paywall and requires a subscription.)

Proposing a new formula for Facebook in 2015: Content is indeed king

Active engagement in social traffic is indeed a powerful indicator of a post’s worth.

researchers' engagement rate formula for Facebook
Researchers devised a new formula to calculate engagement rate on Facebook.

So discovered researchers in 2015 after they analyzed Edgerank, the Facebook algorithm that decides which stories appear in a user’s News Feed, and proposed a new calculation that gives more weight to comments and shares than to likes.

Using their new formula, the authors found that greater engagement does not correlate with the frequency of posts of size of a brand’s fan base.

Instead, it is most likely the quality and interactivity of a post that draws people in.

“The analysis of network data revealed that the engagement level of the followers/fans does not correlate with the frequency of moderators’ post or the quantity of the fan base. It can be assumed that factors such as interactivity, quality of post (based on the type of media content such as text, photo, video, etc.) grabs the attention of the social audience rather than the quantity of posts,” write V. Mangala Vadivu and M. Neelamalar from the Department of Media Sciences at Anna University, in Chennai, India. They are the co-authors of “Digital Brand Management: A Study on the Factors Affecting Customers’ Engagement in Facebook Pages.”

Their study “also showed that the brand’s initial efforts for gaining a huge fan base becomes futile if the brand fails to make the fans interact and engage with the page continuously,” they say.

“If the lack of engagement prevailed for a longer duration, then the fans tend to form a weak affinity or ties with the page as a result of the edge rank algorithm and will avoid posting these low affinity posts in its user’s page which may lead to disconnection of the fans from the brand page,” they conclude.

Read Mark Zuckerberg’s November 2018 “Blueprint for Content Governance and Enforcement”

The number one Facebook marketing tip: Consumers have far more influence over each other than advertisers do

Facebook's Prineville Data Center
Facebook’s Prineville Data Center

When it comes to Facebook, companies are learning that consumers influence each other to buy products far more than advertising campaigns do.

In fact, consumers are able to “provide a persuasive effect over other consumers 22 times stronger than marketers,” say Constantinos K. CoursarisWietske van Osch, and Brigitte A. Balogh of Michigan State University and authors of “Do Facebook Likes Lead to Shares or Sales? Exploring the Empirical Links between Social Media Content, Brand Equity, Purchase Intention, and Engagement.

But persuade to do what? Companies can’t benefit from brand exposure on social media if the likes, comments, and shares don’t translate to sales.

Proposed Second Order Construct for Brand Equity, Construct Scales
Proposed Second Order Construct for Brand Equity, Construct Scales

“Prior studies report on organizations’ increasing fiscal investments in social media marketing communications, reflecting the anticipated benefits for an organization’s bottomline. However, while an expected and impactful trend, few studies have attempted to solidify the value proposition of brand social media marketing communications,” the authors say.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to know how the level of engagement affected users’ perceptions of a particular brand.

They recruited local Facebook users and asked them their attitude, brand image perception, and likelihood of making a purchase from McDonalds, Walmart, and Delta Airlines. Then, for four weeks, they engaged—at pre-assigned high and low levels—with the companies’ Facebook pages to see how it would change any of those impressions.

The researchers learned that “the direct effect of brand equity on purchase intention is approximately twice as strong as that on brand social media engagement intention. Put simply, the greater equity a brand enjoys in the consumer’s mind, the more likely outcome is a future purchase than a subsequent interaction with the brand’s social media content in the future.”

Further inquiry revealed exactly what type of content has the most positive effect. It had less to do with the frequency of posts and more to do with the strength of their visual and textual content.

“The most interesting practical implication is that it is not continuous exposure to social media messages, but rather the exposure overall to strong, engaging messages that has a positive effect on brand attitude and in turn purchase intent,” say the authors.

Facebook “webhooks” help companies track user behavior on their pages

Tracking behavior on Facebook is an all-important pursuit for many brands and publishers.

So researchers have done a deep-dive analysis into Facebook’s “Webhooks,” which allows developers’ apps to create a social actions tracking system that “listens” to the changes happening over Facebook pages.

“Out of this tracking, social flows are developed and consist of connecting the executed social actions together. This should help understand why users take specific actions on social media and not others,” say Emir Ugljanin of the State University of Novi Pazar, Noura Faci of Claude Bernard Lyon 1 UniversityMohamed Sellami of ISEP, and Zakaria Maamar of Zayed University, authors of “Tracking Users’ Actions over Social Media: Application to Facebook.

The system can be beneficial to companies who want to track the behavior of users who visit their Facebook pages.

“The social flow displayer presents real-time social flows on a browser showing how a company, greenUtility, promotes its services to customers and seeks their feedback through Facebook using HTML 5, JavaScript, and Graph Dracula, a JavaScript Graph Library. The enterprise employees use these flows to identify what social actions (un)known subscribers have executed over this enterprise’s Facebook pages. This could lead into reviewing BPs if these (un)known subscribers’ feedback, for example, is deemed relevant for the enterprise,” the authors say.

The researchers hope to use the same system on other social media channels like Twitter.

Extroversion and neuroticism: How personality affects your Facebook experience

Facebook open rack server
Facebook open rack server: “It’s part of the Open Compute Project’s ‘grid to gates’ philosophy, a holistic design process that considers the interdependence of everything from the power grid to the gates in the chips on each motherboard,” Facebook says.

Are you outgoing or neurotic?

It could have an impact on how your network of Facebook friends share posts.

Researchers dug into a database of millions of personality tests compiled by an old Facebook app called MyPersonality to see how much a person’s extroversion or neuroticism affected the strength of their friendships on Facebook.

These and other demographics are studied to see how much influence personality has on the strength of social media friendships as well as a user’s social status on Facebook.

The results showed that birds of a feather really do flock together. Similarities in age and gender made strong connections, but similar personalities made for the strongest.

“In general, connectedness was strongest for male-only pairs, followed by female-only, and then mixed pairs. For agreeableness, the effect of personality similarity on connectedness was strongest among male-only pairs, but did not have an effect for female-only pairs. On the other hand, personality similarity continued to have the same positive effect for conscientiousness, regardless of gender,” write Nyala NoëRoger M. Whitaker, and Stuart M. Allen of the School of Computer Science and Informatics at Cardiff University and authors of “Personality Homophily and the Local Network Characteristics of Facebook.”

The authors studied friendships in groups of three and found that extroverts tend to have stronger connections, referred to as “closed triangles.”

On the other hand, neurotics tended to be the third wheel in the more stressful “open triangle” relationships.

If you want to know what shapes social media, study the “lurkers”

Social media participation follows a 90-9-1 rule.

That means “1 percent of online users are active contributors, 9 percent are intermittent contributors contributing from time to time, and the remaining 90 percent users are lurkers,” write S. Anand of New York University, and M. Venkataraman, K. P. Subbalakshmi, and R. Chandramouli of  Stevens Institute of Technology, authors of “Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Passive Consumption in Internet Media.”

Passive Consumption and Active Participation for Top Six YouTube Videos of all Time
Passive Consumption and Active Participation for Top Six YouTube Videos of all Time

The authors say that conclusions based on customer feedback on products, movie reviews, or events may not be accurate because it represents a very small percentage of the overall sample size.

For example, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in 2011 was spread primarily through social media. However, people who passively consumed the information then actively participated in the protests.

In these types of scenarios, the authors propose that more studies be done on lurkers and their behavior, while finding other ways to measure how social media influences them.

Regardless of when or where information originates, researchers attempted to create a structure for the influence matrix, so that word about events such as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement can spread.

“A spatio-temporal analysis of the consumption of information on this movement will provide a powerful tool to understand how popular the movement would be at different locations at different times, which, in turn, can be pro-actively used to anticipate, predict or prevent events,” the authors say.

Social Ambassadors: Advertisers’ method to promote their brands on Facebook

Cycle of increasing popularity of brand page
Cycle of increasing popularity of brand page

Out of millions of mobile apps, Facebook is the most popular, says a 2014 study.

Advertisers leverage Facebook to promote their brands through “social ambassadors”—users who influence others to buy, try, or subscribe to their products and services through word-of-mouth or endorsements.

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Managementare looking for ways to identify the most influential ambassadors on Facebook in order to “target potential customers, increase brand value, strengthen customer relationship, advertise upcoming products/services, and so on,” say Adrija Majumdar, Debashis Saha, and Parthasarathi Dasgupta, authors of “An analytical method to identify social ambassadors for a mobile service provider’s brand page on Facebook.”

Once ambassadors have been identified, however, the authors caution against untargeted or excessive advertisements, which users may see as coercive. The key is to measure the level of engagement the user has with the brand and find those who engage the most.

The algorithm uses a metric “association value” composed of three constructs: proximity, similarity and interaction. The resulting software bot automatically calculates the total number of posts and comments of each user engaged with the brand page. Those with the highest levels of engagement receive more updates and could, as the authors suggest, receive incentives from the company to maintain high engagement.

Mining social media for mental health indicators

Having seen unprecedented growth in recent years, social media sites give people a place to share opinions, experiences, and feelings with others. For mental health experts, these sites are a goldmine of information about the emotional state of people in certain demographic groups and areas.

While researchers have traditionally gathered data from surveys and focus groups about a population’s emotional state, they say that Facebook and Twitter can provide a real-time source of information about a group’s predisposition to mental health problems.

We Feel Architecture
We Feel Architecture

Australian researchers developed a tool called We Feel that analyzes emotions, specifically on Twitter, by monitoring its stream for emotional content and presenting it in an interactive visualization.

Emotion categorization subsets
Emotion categorization subsets

“The ultimate goal of We Feel is to help uncover how our mood and emotions fluctuate, potentially in reactions to specific events, and which genders, age-groups, professions or even what cities, regions or countries are most at risk of depression.

“The tool could help understand questions such as how strongly our emotions depend on social, economic and environmental factors, such as the weather, time of day, day of the week, specific events, news of a major disaster or a downturn in the economy,” say Cécile Paris of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)Philip Batterham of Australian National University, and Helen Christensen and Bridianne O’Dea of Black Dog Institute, authors of “Exploring emotions in social media.”

We Feel is interactive, allowing researchers to select a region of the world, a gender group, or a specific emotion for further study. Tweets are mined for subsets of words that express emotions like love, joy, surprise, anger, and sadness.

The system is fast, capturing up to 45,000 tweets per minute and expressing emotional prevalence in five minute increments. This can be important in cases of widespread crisis. People often take to Twitter to express how they feel about political events, natural disasters, the death of  a favorite celebrity, or the state of the economy.

We Feel measures anger in Australia
Peak of anger in Australia on the day of the budget release, May 13th, 2014

“Social media offers a large and fast sample of information that could hold the key to a real-time view of our emotions. While we have started to validate the data obtained through We Feel, as mentioned above, more validation can be done. But as social media is such an important means of communications nowadays, it cannot be ignored. Expressions of emotions, suicide ideation and depression do appear on social media,” the authors say.




Michael Martinez


About Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez, the editor of the Computer Society’s Computer.Org website and its social media, has covered technology as well as global events while on the staff at CNN, Tribune Co. (based at the Los Angeles Times), and the Washington Post. He welcomes email feedback, and you can also follow him on LinkedIn.



About Lori Cameron

Lori Cameron is a Senior Writer for the IEEE Computer Society and currently writes regular features for Computer magazine, Computing Edge, and the Computing Now and Magazine Roundup websites. Contact her at Follow her on LinkedIn.