What the World Cup Can Teach Us about Facebook Sharing

During the recently concluded 2014 World Cup, I found it very frustrating to share my enthusiasm on Facebook. To be more specific, my difficulty was sharing the outcomes of individual matches. After chatting with Digitas Health LifeBrands SVP of Social Media, Michael Leis, I did some investigation. Here’s what I found.

Let’s talk first about the problem I was having. For context, over the course of the tournament, I ended up supporting four different teams, one of which was Belgium’s national team, the Red Devils. Let’s take the example of the team’s second appearance there, the June 22 group-stage match against Russia. Belgium’s 1-0 win over Russia, with the late game-winning goal scored by #17 Divock Origi, guaranteed the Belgians a spot in the knockout stage of the tournament. Getting to this so-called “round of 16” means surviving the first big cull of teams — half of them get eliminated here — so it’s a big deal, and I wanted to share my excitement quickly on Facebook.

In general, I prefer posting Facebook updates with a photo or a link to an article; it’s more interesting and eye-catching. Especially in this case, since the article I chose was in Dutch, a language that the majority of my Facebook friends don’t speak, I wanted to provide some visual cues about what I was posting. I picked the article below from the web site of the Belgian daily “De Standaard.” It had a suitably triumphant title and just look at that dramatic photo of Origi. If you had any doubts, it made it clear: he rocks!

article

However, when I shared it to Facebook, it looked like this

FB_sharing

Huh? My comment was appropriately celebratory, but the sharing content from the article was a big letdown. In fact, it still read like the match hadn’t yet begun at all. The description of the article even talked about the match in the future tense. And what happened to that photo I got so excited about? I did some digging, but eventually gave up, made my peace with how the article would show up, and got on with the rest of my day. At least my post was up and I had shared my enthusiasm about the match with my friends.

So what happened? It was still bothering me.

I initially thought the problem was the metadata on the article. Metadata, in this case the so-called “og:” tags, are little bits of code on a web page that Facebook and other social-media sites use to determine what to show when that page is shared. Had the newspaper’s online editors updated the copy on the article but not (yet) updated the metadata to reflect this new content? Not so, apparently. Upon inspection, the metadata on the web page indeed did match the new content of the story.

code_og_tags

So maybe Facebook was caching the metadata and it just hadn’t yet been refreshed in Facebook’s system? Facebook allows you to request a “rescrape” of your page and renew the data that it caches. This is done using the Facebook Object Debugger (this is documented here and here, for example). So I went there to do that, in the hope of being able to share the current version of the article, but to no avail. The old info was still showing up.

I read through some more of Facebook’s documentation and found that after 50 actions (such as Likes) have been associated with an object (in this case the web page of the article), you can no longer update the title for sharing purposes. Although the documentation claims all other properties (aside from the title) are always editable, I found less authoritative sources saying other data could also be frozen after additional actions (for example, here). The rationale is apparently to avoid people being surprised by the content they share on their timeline suddenly changing after-the-fact without them knowing. That makes some sense to me, but doesn’t seem to me to be the best way to handle the problem. And, of course, for me, this seemed to be causing the opposite problem: it was keeping me from sharing the content I actually wanted to share.

The plot thickened a bit when a month later, I tested it again, to see what would happen. To my surprise, when I tried again to share that article, the updated information now appeared. And what of my post? Still frozen as if the match had never started. Resharing my post from within Facebook just reposts the old outdated information too.

article_sharing_frozen

This does not appear to match the behavior detailed in the documentation. That documentation is not dated, so it’s hard to tell whether this behavior has been replaced by newer logic or if something else might have been going on. Facebook is constantly updating their platform and these updates do not come in the form of formal, detailed, and documented releases that are provided to the public at large.

Another thing is that in order to meet the demands of so many people and companies making such frequent use of Facebook, it uses a database model called “NoSQL” (you can read a quick summary of NoSQL here). One of its characteristics is something called “eventual consistency.” This means that while Facebook’s multiple databases are in the process of converging their respective data, they could provide “outdated” information in the meantime. Whether that is actually behind this behavior is just speculation on my part and a discussion for another time.

Broadly, this reminds us of the ever-evolving nature of social-media platforms, and Facebook in general. But more specifically, what practical lessons can we learn from this?

For one, this shows the limitations of social-media sharing for rapidly changing content on a single URL. This has implications for both social-media strategy as well as content strategy. If the sharing metadata is going to significantly change and it matters for a short timeframe, additional tactics may need to be applied, for instance putting the new content (and new metadata!) at a new URL and redirecting the old URL to the new one. This will, however, mean a tradeoff, since the Likes, for example, will be counted separately for each page. For another, it means that old potentially “stale” information can be frozen on timelines and perpetuated by further sharing within Facebook. Notably for companies operating in a heavily regulated advertising space such as pharma, in which materials have a strictly specified expiration, the longevity and unchangeability of information “in the wild” should be taken into consideration when sharable content is crafted.

– Marco Maertens, Director, Technology