Meta’s Study Reveals User Discontent with Chronological Feeds

In a recent study conducted by Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, it was revealed that users are less engaged when served with chronological feeds as opposed to algorithmically curated ones. The study was part of a larger project aimed at understanding the impact of Facebook and Instagram on users’ political attitudes during the 2020 US presidential election.

Over a span of three months in late 2020, nearly 7,200 US adults on Facebook and 8,800 on Instagram were subjected to a different user experience. Instead of viewing posts deemed most relevant by an algorithm, these users were shown posts in chronological order. The outcome was unequivocal: users quickly lost interest and were more likely to switch to rival platforms such as YouTube and TikTok.

Instagram had previously removed the chronological feed option in 2016 due to user objections but reintroduced it last year, following Facebook’s lead. Some users and lawmakers have advocated for a chronological feed as a solution to the opaque ranking algorithms that can create information bubbles or lead users towards harmful content.

However, the new data from Meta’s study aligns with at least two internal studies conducted over the past decade, which found that displaying posts in chronological order led to users logging off. These findings also provide insight into why Meta has made it challenging for users to access alternatives to its standard, algorithm-driven feeds, despite regulatory and political pressure.

Interestingly, the study coincided with Instagram’s introduction of a reverse chronological feed option to its new Twitter-like app, Threads. While this update may satisfy some Twitter users and live-news enthusiasts who have been clamoring for it, Meta will undoubtedly be closely monitoring for signs of user disengagement.

The study concluded that while users served with a reverse chronological feed encountered more political and untrustworthy content, it did not significantly affect their political knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors. The researchers noted, “Our findings rule out even modest effects, tempering expectations that social media feed-ranking algorithms directly cause affective or issue polarization in individuals.”

Perhaps the most striking result was that users exposed to a chronological feed were more likely to spend their time on other online platforms. Instagram users who were forced to use a time-based feed increased their time on TikTok by 36 percent and YouTube by 20 percent, on average, spending nearly eight hours less on the app over the three months.

This study underscores the complex relationship between social media platforms, user engagement, and content delivery mechanisms. As Meta and other social media giants continue to navigate this landscape, the balance between user preferences, engagement metrics, and ethical considerations will remain a challenging task.

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