03 February 2010

For feeds, Facebook is even worse than Twitter

I recently read an article about Facebook possibly becoming the world’s biggest news reader. Clearly it has a significant user base: it’s at least 10 times bigger than Twitter. And, although I haven’t seen many estimates about the number of Google Reader users, it’s safe to say they are even less than Twitter’s. But other that sheer size, does it have any other advantages?

Well, as hard as I think, I can’t really find a good one. On the surface, this just looks like last year’s argument whether Google Reader or Twitter is better for following news. But as hard as it tries lately to copy Twitter, Facebook it’s far from it. The experience is much less customizable, it lacks the large ecosystem of Twitter applications and clients. It’s not even real-time, like Twitter!

The good thing about Facebook is that is has a dedicated ‘Pages’ view showing only these subscription-like updates. Unfortunately, ‘Pages’, like all lists, respects the general settings of the ‘News Feed’, so if you hide something there, it is also hidden here. This makes it impossible, under the current interface, to separate pages you have become a fan of from friends and to keep your stream relatively clean. One of the first hints that Facebook wasn’t designed for news reading.

One problem I see with Twitter & Facebook as main information sources is the availability: not all websites or blogs have Twitter accounts or Facebook pages. On the other hand, RSS is built-in to most blogging platforms, if not all, so the author doesn’t need to set up anything extra. Google Reader also recently evolved beyond feeds to deliver updates from any webpage, making it the next best thing to an universal source of updates.

Another inconvenience is the interface: I made a small test comparing how many updates my display shows and Google Reader in ‘list’ view clearly wins with 20 titles, Twitter comes second with 9 and Facebook is a distant last with barely 2 stories visible! Facebook has the disadvantage of showing likes and the last two comments, something I’m not particularly interested in when reading news. Twitter can also be pretty noisy, if the account owner tweets about random personal stuff in addition to importing blog articles. Both services force the user to scroll considerably more than with a dedicated feed reader, and require user action even to load older content, by clicking “Older posts”.

  • Feed viewed in Google Reader
    Feed viewed in Google Reader
  • Feed viewed in Twitter
    Feed viewed on Twitter
  • Feed viewed in Facebook
    Feed viewed on Facebook

There are other smaller shortcomings, like the inability to migrate subscriptions from or to another application. Google Reader has an ‘Offline’ mode, that could prove very useful on the new tablets when Wi-Fi connection is poor. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see like this in Twitter, given it’s real-time nature, or in Facebook, because it would complicate the delivery of adds. And would it be so hard to have a couple of keyboard shortcuts?!

Switching away from RSS would also mean giving up on a lot of news when you don’t check your account(s) even for a couple of days. Twitter and Facebook don’t provide ‘unread’ indicators, so older news are just buried under new updates. You can compensate for that by creating lists, but that’s manual work one doesn’t need to do in a feed reader. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the “e-mail” approach when reading RSS and the control I have over what I read. I don’t feel compelled in any way to read all the articles; if the title doesn’t attract my attention, I just scroll past that entry for the next one. If there are too many unread feeds, I read my favorites and mark all the others as read.

The article I cited before also talks about how partial feeds are good for readers. I’m sorry, what?! How is it better for me to have to go to the original article and wait while all the banners and adds load instead of just viewing the text and relevant media inline? I agree a full article would rarely fit in with Facebook, but that’s not an argument against full feeds, it’s one against reading RSS inside a social network.

Personally, I became a fan of about 40 pages on Facebook to date, but most of them send updates very rarely and don’t intrude much with my social updates. And those that update many times a day are now hidden, because they were too annoying. If Facebook has a future in the news business, I think it’s best bet are fewer, personalized or even local updates, not general information in industrial volume.

Ultimately, trying to be all things to all people could be the downfall of Facebook. I personally don’t want to turn it into a news reader, because in this current form this ruins the whole experience of “connecting with real people” Facebook was founded on. Other users could also be alienated by the raising number of not-so-relevant updates and, as other social networks discovered the hard way, there’s no loyalty on the web…

Update: After the recent Facebook redesign, the link to ‘Pages’ is gone from the left sidebar. You can still find it at this address: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?filter=pp, so you can bookmark it in your browser, for example. At least until some new update breaks it for good...


  1. My sentiments exactly. I'm playing around with using Twitter, Facebook and GReader for my news gathering, having used GReader for the past 4 or 5 years. I've tried to subscribe to similar feeds, (although most don't exist on both!) creating similar lists to the folders/tags I have in GReader. I'm cycling between them all and noticing the strengths of each. But in the end I have to agree with you in that I just don't get the density out of Twitter and Facebook that I get out of GReader. I think there is definitely room for consolidation between Linked-In, GReader, Facebook and Twitter, but unfortunately right now each has its own strength. However if I had choice, I would like to see Twitter overhauled!

  2. You have a point. I use Google Reader also to keep track of Facebook notifications ;) and I also enjoy TweetDeck when I want to check for news and links from people I'm following (around 300 organized in 13 groups).
    I'm experimenting with Facebook as a news reader, but in the end, I'm already using GR and Twitter and I'm totally happy with them.
    Facebook has really a large audience, most of the hundreds of millions users on Facebook don't even know what Google Reader is and maybe they have just heard about Twitter, it's a matter of what you get used to, what are you first exposed to I guess.
    I agree with RWW that it could be really interesting for online newspapers and magazines. Facebook offers great social features that Google Reader is missing (at least RWW is right pointing out that people are already accustomed to Facebook's interface.)
    I wrote a short tutorial on how to make Facebook your News Reader, check it out if you are interested :)

  3. Thank you both for the feedback!
    Phil, some prominent tech bloggers, like Robert Scoble, argue Twitter is already a better news reader, but I disagree.
    Facebook is trying to compete with Google by leveraging it's user base and fast growth, but it needs a better interface for news. I would like, for example, to see all updates from Pages in one place, even if I have removed them from the 'News Feed'; this way I could use 'Pages' as a powerful and social news source, without disturbing my interaction with 'Friends'.
    Maybe Google should insist more and explain to people what RSS is and how it can be used, like they did with the "What is a browser?" campaign to promote Chrome. Unfortunately, I don't think they see a monetization opportunity for RSS.
    Daniel, you could move almost all information from Facebook to Google Reader, if you like: How to use Facebook with a feed reader :)

  4. Scoble has flip flopped from GReader, to Twitter, to Friendfeed and back to Twitter. His needs are quite a bit different to ours, since he prefers to 'dip' his hands into the stream for a sample of the news. However by doing that I don't know just how much depth he can possibly get out of it without spending an obscene amount of time. Most of the quality tweets (many being the same you can pull down from their main feed) are just diluted by random thoughts and verbal diarrhea. Way too much noise! However his bread and butter is visibility and exposure to drive traffic to his blog. So he needs to spread himself as far and wide as possible.

    He must have some very good keyword filtering or focus on a very succinct list if he is able to pull in the same quality we can get out of GReader.

    Twitter's real time in the moment streams can be fantastic...although even then you have to sift through the repetitive noise if you are following by hashtag.

    Facebook has the momentum and the potential to bring a Google Reader type news stream to the masses. I certainly agree with Daniel's assertion that most people haven't even heard of GReader. However, I have the same concern with Facebook as I have with Apple and their electronic stores; the walled garden and the inevitable power they can wield as more control of the distribution channel comes under their purview.

    Although I am likely being naive, I don't have the same concern about google. Many of their initiatives just feel more open and transparent. Apple are by far the worst of the big movers right now. Many people will buy into a solution and not put a single thought into the business practices of the company providing that solution; even to their future detriment.

    I guess we'll just have to see if Google can rescue their social strategy. Their current framework is a shambles so they are going to have to turn up the heat. They certainly have the user base they can tap into instantly. I'm just worried they aren't going to pursue that side of their business with enough vigor to count and instead focus on beefing up their hooks into real time search and enterprise apps.

  5. Yes, I am also concerned about Facebook becoming more and more closed, building a separate Web as some called it.
    Just now, after the '6-year-birthday' redesign, the 'Log off' button was removed from the bar and hidden in a menu!
    And when you click on links leading to other sites, I have seen some weird warnings about security, like the only secure place on the Web is Facebook!
    It's like they don't want users to ever leave the site!