Facebook Testing Natural Language Processing, Links Pages Even If You Don't

By Erin Harrison August 09, 2011

It may be 700 million users strong, but Facebook is still a work in progress. The latest change to the ultra-popular social network platform is its testing of so-called natural language processing – in essence, News Feeds are being grouped together by relevance, whether posts have been tagged or not.

Facebook’s own status update on Aug. 8 read: “You may notice some of your News Feed stories are now grouped together by topic. We want to show you the most relevant and interesting information, and this test is designed to show you trends among what your friends are saying.”

According to a ZDnet report, Facebook is using natural language processing on status updates as well as the headlines of posted links “to figure out if a topic mentioned has a corresponding page, and then searches to see if your other friends have done so as well.”

Essentially, it helps users see which topics are popular among their Facebook friends.

In an example provided on Facebook’s own wall, let’s say one friend is posting about going to see the latest Harry Potter flick, and two others are posting links about the same topic. Facebook is now grouping such related posts together on your News Feed.

Based on this example, the topic keywords do not have to be “tagged” in order for the social network to group related posts together. Using natural language processing, the site actively scans users’ statuses for pages that it can group content by, whether a page is tagged or not, ZDnet reported.

But what may be perceived as a courtesy for some users will be recognized as an invasion of privacy by others or feel they are being used by Facebook as a marketing tool.

Inside Facebook reports, “…Some users may not enjoy the presence of Posted About stories. They may feel that Facebook is invading their privacy by ‘reading’ their posts, even though the processing is done by computers, not humans.”

It appears that the natural language processing used by Facebook is not entirely clever, as its intuitive processing is limited by picking up similar words, and can’t detect inflection.

Facebook confirmed with Inside Facebook it doesn’t identify sentiment, “how a Page’s name is being used, or whether the mentioned Page was actually the focus of the update. As such, the Posted About stories may highlight Pages that aren’t actually what a user was discussing or that are being talked about negatively.”

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Erin Harrison is Executive Editor, Strategic Initiatives, for TMC, where she oversees the company's strategic editorial initiatives, including the launch of several new print and online initiatives. She plays an active role in the print publications and TechZone360, covering IP communications, information technology and other related topics. To read more of Erin's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

Executive Editor, Strategic Initiatives

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