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There Are More Eyes on Your Facebook Posts Than You Can Even Imagine

A recent report from Stanford University and Facebook suggests we consistently underestimate the size of our audience on social media.

Whether you're a ninja, guru, or mere mortal user of social media, you've likely guessed how many people read your Facebook posts. Among the estimation techniques reported in a recent study by Stanford University and Facebook: "I figured about half of the people who see it will ‘like’ it, or comment on it"; "number of people who liked it times 4"; and "maybe a third of my friends saw it."

It turns out, however, that none of these strategies are particularly accurate. Throughout June 2012, researchers tracked Facebook posts from 220,000 users while asking the posts' authors to guess how many friends had seen individual updates. On average, participants guessed their audience was about 27% of its true size.

"For these posts without feedback," the study's authors offer as an explanation for users’ consistent underestimation: "It might be more comfortable to believe that nobody saw it than to believe that many saw it but nobody liked it."

Other possible reasons include users basing estimates on whom they see on Facebook without accounting for people who are reading, but not responding, and the unknown criteria Facebook uses to determine what shows up in friends' News Feeds. The study found no straightforward way to predict audience size based on likes, comments, or friend count.

Most Facebook users, however, wouldn't necessarily be disappointed to find out they're reaching more people than they've guessed. Only 3% of study participants wanted a smaller audience than they thought they had, while about half wanted a larger audience. Another half were satisfied with their audience—how zen.

But given that we base our social media actions at least partly on the audience we imagine for our content, understanding that the imagined audience is often smaller than the real one could be important.

As the study's authors put it: "Posting to a social network site is like speaking to an audience from behind a curtain. The audience remains invisible to the user: While the invitation list is known, the final attendance is not."

[Image: Flickr user Ben Husmann]

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  • T.S.

    The article says that social media want a larger audience than they already have. Only 3% of the participants want a smaller audience than what they have. Social media users want their voice heard. A light percentage want to not have as much attention. I think this is because they use their social media networks for different reasons.

  • A.S

    The article states that social media users want more of an audience than they already have. While 3% wanted less of an audience. This seems like social media users want their voice to be heard by a larger crowd and only a small percentage wants the exact opposite. I think that the majority of users want their voices to be heard for their own purposes whether inspiration or entertainment

  • Edrfgh

    Interesting. I am curious what the mechanism for tracking views was, and if the users had to opt-in before being asked questions. Is the data publicly available?

  • noname

    The problem with Facebook is that a lot of people post a lot of things which aren't "Like" worthy.  Either the content is random mutterings or it's some link to a news story, or it's something else which actually merits a DISlike, but there's no option to do that.  So all you can do is not Like and move on.  The numbers seem to reflect this. People are not clicking Like. And they should not have to.

    From one perspective, it's too bad there is no dislike option as it would help provide a more accurate picture of what people actually, well, like.   But on the other hand, I can see where dislike would tend to feed into family disputes, i.e. "why did you dislike my political rant post?" or similar. 

    And the first time somebody disliked a baby picture, somebody's going to pay.

  • Leap Graphics

    Great information to know, especially when trying to build an audience for your facebook or fan page... Thanks for posting

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