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Monday, September 9, 2013

Facebook Offers New Windows Into Social Conversation

Facebook is releasing two new search tools on Monday designed to give news organizations â€" and potentially, marketers â€" more insights into the real-time social conversation occurring on Facebook, particularly around television shows, big news and sporting events.

One of the new tools will allow news organizations to use keywords such as “Syria vote” or “Tokyo Olympics” to search Facebook for posts on those topics that an individual user or a company has designated as public.

The other will allow similar topic searches of private Facebook posts, but pull up only aggregate, anonymized demographic data, such as the geography, gender and age of the commenters.

“This is a way for news organizations to tap into and understand what people are talking about,” said Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of partnerships, in an interview. “The possibilities are kind of endless, once we have this in the hands of talented, creative journalists.”

The new tools are the latest salvo in Facebook’s recent campaign to catch up to and perhaps surpass Twitter as the leading platform for online public conversation.

Because most Twitter users set up their accounts to broadcast their posts publicly, the microblogging service has become invaluable for those looking for insights into the broad social zeitgeist as well as the momentary obsessions of the public. (On Sunday, for example, Twitter users in the United States were obsessed by football, according to its trending topics tool.)

Twitter is also wooing advertisers and television stations by helping them target users tweeting about popular TV shows and sporting events while they are occurring.

Facebook, which has roughly five times as many users globally as Twitter, has a similarly valuable trove of data. For example, the company said that last week, the beginning of the N.F.L. season garnered over 20 million likes, comments, and shares on Facebook by over 8 million people.

However, most posts on Facebook’s social network are not public, but instead limited to friends or even smaller groups of people. So Facebook must carefully weigh what information it can release, particularly as it endures another round of attacks over proposed changes to its privacy policies.

Still, the company has been more aggressive recently in its efforts to establish its bona fides as an online town square. It June, it began giving its 1.2 billion users the ability to search posts using hashtags, such as #NFL, much the way they can do on Twitter.

It is testing a “trending topics” module on the main news feed page that would show users the most popular subjects that people are talking about on Facebook. And it recently rolled out embedded posts, which allows anyone to include public Facebook posts, including video, in their own Web page.

The newest tools are another step in that direction.

Initially, they will only be available to a handful of news organizations â€" Buzzfeed, CNN, NBC News, Sky Television and Slate â€" for testing and improvement. Facebook will also provide access to Mass Relevance, a firm that helps companies analyze and use social media to improve their interaction with customers. But Facebook said it intends to extend access to other media and marketing firms soon.

Those selected to test the tool are eager to try it out.

“As a news organization, we’re always trying to answer what our people talking about,” Ryan Osborn, vice president of digital innovations and social media at NBC News, said in an interview.

He said that NBC plans to use the tools to help it conduct an online town hall this week called “Taking Sides: Should the U.S. Strike Syria?” ahead of the Congressional vote on President Obama’s request for authorization to conduct military action against Syria’s government for its apparent use of chemical weapons. It may also be used on the Today show.

KC Estenson, senior vice president and general manager of CNN Digital, said that CNN hopes to get different insights from the Facebook data than it currently gets from Twitter.

“You might get a little bit more personal and intimate sense of who a person is off their Facebook usage than their Twitter usage,” he said.

He said that the tools will not supplant on-the-ground reporting by correspondents, but will supplement it. “This is the social media equivalent of man-on-the-street reporting,” he said. “Over time, we’ll be able to put a lot more intelligence against that.”

It’s less clear how news organizations will be able to use the aggregated, anonymized data about private discussions, but Mr. Estenson said that he expects it will provide another way to take the pulse of the public, much like formal opinion polls do.

“As a glimpse of what people are talking about, and how it breaks down, those can be clues as to what’s going on in this world,” he said.