It’s been five months since Facebook removed editorial descriptions from its Trending Topics box, transforming it from a personalized guide to the day’s news to a context-free list of keywords. The move backfired, routinely grouping stories that had nothing to do with one another under a single keyword and promoting fictional news stories. Now Facebook is ending its effort to create a personalized Trending Topics box, replacing it with a regional list of subjects.
Starting today, everyone in the same geographical area will see the same list, Facebook said in a blog post. “This is designed to help make sure people don't miss important topics being discussed on Facebook that might not show up in their News Feed,” the company said. It’s also easier: generating a list of newsworthy topics for a finite number of regions is much more manageable than an effort to track the individual interests of hundreds of millions of people.
Facebook is making two other changes to the feature. One, Facebook will now display the headline and publisher below the topic. You could previously see the headline by hovering over an article, but that’s a lot of effort to go to only to find out that the thing you’re interested in is a viral article in HillaryEatsBabies.biz. (Facebook says publisher names were the “most requested feature” since the most update, which surprises me, since I would have requested editorially written descriptions long before I requested the display of publisher names.)
Facebook is also changing the way it calculates whether a story is trending. Before now, a story could appear in the trending box if a single story about it were going viral. Now Facebook will take into account how many publishers appear to be writing about the same thing. In part, it’s an effort to combat the viral spread of hoaxes. “This should surface trending topics quicker, be more effective at capturing a broader range of news and events from around the world, and also help ensure that trending topics reflect real world events,” the company said.
Given how bad Trending Topics has been since August, I’m taking today’s news as a good sign. It was never clear how a personalized list of keywords was supposed to present a compelling user experience. A set of aggregated headlines has a better shot. And if Facebook can get that right, I wouldn’t be surprised to eventually see personalization return.