Facebook is finally rolling out its version of trending topics on a widespread basis — and it’s not using Twitter-style hashtags to organize them.
The company plans to announce on Thursday that it will be adding a module to users’ news feed pages that will suggest stories and topics that are popular on Facebook that they might find interesting. The list, called Trending, will appear near the top of the right-hand column of the news feed for desktop users.
The world’s largest social network, with 1.2 billion users worldwide, said that everyone in the United States, Canada, Britain, India and Australia should be seeing the feature on Facebook.com in the next two weeks. Other countries — and the company’s mobile apps — will get the service later.
Trending, which was publicly promised last summer, is part of Facebook’s greater ambition to become the leading online hub for conversation about public events and news. That’s been a challenge because the core Facebook experience is built around comments privately shared among each user’s network of friends. Twitter, by contrast, is centered on public conversation, making it an appealing destination for readers and advertisers who want to commune with humanity at large over major world events like the death of Nelson Mandela or television shows like the Golden Globe awards.
Chris Struhar, an engineering manager who works on Trending as well as Facebook’s news feed, said the new service was designed to be easier to understand and more customized than, say, Twitter’s list of trending topics, which is often just a list of cryptic keywords or hashtags.
“Showing just the topic name, you kind of look at that and say, I don’t understand why this thing is trending,” he said in an interview.
Facebook’s Trending will suggest three topics to each user, with a headline from a news story about each one to help users figure out at a glance what the conversation is about. Suggested topics are chosen based on the user’s own interests and three other basic criteria, Mr. Struhar said: the authority of the people commenting on the topic, how recently the topic has surged on Facebook and how much users are engaging with it.
Once you click on the headline, you get taken to a page with stories, public posts and other items about the topic. You can also pull up additional suggested topics.
I played around with the service on Wednesday evening and found it promising but still rough.
For example, the service’s top suggestion for me was the hilarious clip from Tuesday’s Jimmy Fallon show in which he and Bruce Springsteen sang a parody of “Born to Run” that made fun of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge scandal.
I had totally missed that earlier in the day, and my friends weren’t posting much about it. But with more than a million views on YouTube, it was clearly viral — and it was a great match for my interests. (Twitter had long since moved on to “American Idol,” which was Facebook’s No. 3 suggestion.)
On the downside, the page basically featured a couple of dozen news sites saying the same thing: Mr. Fallon and Mr. Springsteen sing parody song poking fun at Mr. Christie. There wasn’t any social conversation for me to join or even a status update box for me to start my own conversation about it (although I did share the video on my timeline).
Mr. Struhar said Trending will continue to evolve based on user feedback. The company’s testing showed that people very much wanted to see comments from important figures directly involved in an event, like what Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, had to say about the playoffs.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand who has the most interesting things to say,” Mr. Struhar said.
Facebook does plan to put a status update box on topic pages and perhaps adjust the mix and order of items. “We just want to be much better about surfacing public content that’s happening anywhere on Facebook,” Mr. Struhar said.
More broadly, he added, Trending is just one piece in Facebook’s larger strategy. “Our vision for news feed is to become your personal newspaper,” he said. “We want to connect you with all the events in the world that you will want to know about.”