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Facebook’s 'Trending': A step forward in competition and news distribution

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Facebook announced Thursday its newest feature—Trending. This list of news topics will help users discover internet-wide trending issues so they can more easily share them with Facebook Friends. It will be placed in the upper right-hand corner of a user’s feed. A user can click on a trending news topic that will take the user to a page of posts by Friends and Pages that are also discussing the topic. There a user can Like, comment on and share the postings like on the Facebook homepage feed.

The topics in Trending are determined according to a user’s interests, Likes, as well as “what is trending across Facebook overall,” says Facebook engineering manager Chris Struhar. According to Facebook's Help tool, Hashtags are also used to determine the topics. According to “The New York Times”, so far the feature can be found on Facebook feeds in the U.S. and is anticipated to be seen on ones in Canada, Britain, India and Australia (within two weeks from the writing of this article). The new feature is not available for mobile devices yet but the developers at Facebook are currently testing it for mobile use.

Trending is clearly Facebook’s latest step in its competition with the other world-wide popular social media site, Twitter. Twitter has already had its own trending news feature, Trends. The micro-blogging site was using hashtags before Facebook started to use them last June, according to the “San Jose Mercury”. Only about two months later, Facebook started testing Trending, referred to at the time as “Trending Topics”. Like Twitter, Facebook limits its number of trending topics to 10.

A major difference and challenge to Facebook has been that, unlike Twitter, it is not based on real-time sharing of news as events happen. According to a Computerworld.com article, “Twitter has the edge on its rival [Facebook] in one specific area – immediacy. . . . Twitter dominates in real-time discussions about high interest events, so if users want to comment on the dress an actress is wearing at an awards event, they’ll turn to Twitter. The same goes for users who want to support a political candidate . . . during a live debate.” But now Facebook users will have that same advantage and so Trending is bringing Facebook neck and neck with Twitter in the race for the lead in social media. Facebook, then, is moving beyond sharing information between family and friends to sharing worldwide news as it occurs.

Another difference from Twitter’s Trends is that each topic listing in Facebook’s Trending is followed by a description indicating why it’s popular. This may persuade users more to click on a topic since they’ll be able to tell how important it is, and so the description may be an advantage over Twitter’s trend feature that simply lists the topics.

But how useful and informing will Trending be for users? How informing will it be with important events as opposed to mere trivial ones such as what a particular celebrity is wearing at a function? What’s popular in news is not always what’s most important in news especially if it’s coming from mainstream, big profit media. This problem may be toned down a little with Trending taking a user’s interests into consideration but it still doesn’t give the user much control over receiving news that he/she may want or over which sources that news comes from. Says Josh Constine of Techcrunch, “I sure didn’t see much personalization in the [topics] I was shown.” Twitter’s Trends at least provides the user with a Change button where when clicked on the user can receive news for locations outside their own.

And will Trending really inspire Facebook users to seriously and intelligently discuss important and meaningful issues? Constine says such discussions were lacking when “after scrolling through several reams of each [of] the 10 [topics], I found most of the pages were overrun with news sites sharing the same links or copy-cat takes on current events. I only saw one post by a friend the whole time.” Yours truly received similar results when he tried Trending on the day of its release (Thursday) which included only one friend's post. Maybe Facebook’s next step in enhancing its platform is to provide more custom tools on Trending. We can’t lose hope yet; Trending has only been up for three days. We have yet to see how it will be utilized and how much. In the meantime, try it for yourself.

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