20 September 2011

Another Facebook overhaul: subscriptions and smart lists

It’s been more than a year and a half since the last major changes from ; of course, Facebook hasn’t stopped experimenting, by releasing Messages, Groups and a lot of smaller updates. This time the changes are less about the user interface and more about fundamental features they probably consider essential to keep the advantage over the competition.

Improved Friend Lists

Lists have been a part of the Facebook experience for as long as I can remember, but they never seemed to become a tool for the average user. The recent change aims to make list creation easier and more automated, saving people the hassle of manually managing them. In addition to any list you have created before, Facebook now adds the following types:

  • Smart lists, based on the things you have in common with friends: same city, some workplace or school, family members.
  • Close Friends, Acquaintances and Restricted: these are not automatically created, but have some modifications to the news feed algorithm, so that you will see more updates from ‘close friends’, less from ‘acquaintances’ and the ‘restricted’ ones will not be able to see anything but public posts and information – making them essentially ‘subscribers’ (see the next section).
Updated lists on Facebook
New lists in five easy slides, as explained by Facebook

Facebook reorder favorites, including listsAlong with the new list types, the home page has changed to accommodate them. Lists now have their own section in the left sidebar, which displays three of them by default. To access the rest, hover over the section and click ‘More’. It’s not the most user friendly way to access lists and I was a bit disappointed at first, especially because lists are gone from the ‘Most recent’ menu as well. Fortunately, you can now mark lists as favorites, which brings them to the top of the sidebar, just under ‘News feed’. Again, hovering over the links shows a small edit button to remove them or rearrange – this is how I discovered you can also remove other elements (I removed the events in favor of more lists, for example), with the exception of the news feed. It’s curious you cannot do the same with Groups, which I would gladly remove for more vertical space. Overall, this update brings back the look Facebook had over a year ago, with custom ordering and links in the sidebar, with the difference that you cannot replace the news feed with a custom list, as it was the case back then.

Facebook list choose updatesOne of the motivations for creating links is to consume updates from a smaller set of friends: here Facebook made some important changes by allowing more control over the types of updates users see from any given list. Similar controls are available now for individual friends and this probably shows the two features are well connected. The defaults are not what I would choose (never ‘Games’, come on!); change them from the list page with the ‘Manage List’. I think the categories could use some explaining: ‘Status Updates’ includes links to the best of my knowledge and ‘Other Activity’ is just cryptic – is that supposed to mean relationship status and new connections?

Facebook new per post privacy using listsThe other purpose of lists, to share with specific friends, is also better emphasized. Status updates can be more easily targeted at specific lists, as they are now part of the privacy drop-down. It’s interesting that one of the top options is ‘Friends except Acquaintances’, taking advantage of the new built-in lists and at the same time encouraging people to share more privately; not something you see from Facebook every day. And another thing: like on Google+, if you visit the list page, the status box automatically defaults to sharing only with that list. It’s a little weird that Facebook doesn’t allow you to change the setting in place, you have to return to the news feed. Hopefully this can become more flexible later, because now it just looks like they want to squeeze more page views from users.

Smart lists sound nice in theory – I have written down some of my own ideas about them a while back – but in practice they’re not that powerful, because many people (me included) don’t fill out all the necessary information on their profiles. Of course Facebook invites us to add more people if they fit the criteria, but that kind of defeats the purpose of an automated list. I guess that’s what happened in the screenshot below: one of my former work colleagues added me to their smart list and I got a notification to confirm. And – except for the option to change the radius for the local city list – users cannot edit then or create other combinations in addition to what Facebook offers. One last thing: call me crazy, but I don’t see the point of recommendations for family members…Facebook review work tag set by a friend

The Subscribe Button

While the new smart lists can be considered an incremental update to an existing feature, the concept of subscribing is new to Facebook. The experience and user-to-user interaction was always based on a bidirectional and consensual relationship: you make a friend request and the other person must accept it in order to have access to your data, updates, etc. Now Facebook has added the other model as well, made very popular by through following and recently by + with circles: you subscribe/follow someone and get access to their public updates, while they can keep private updates limited to their friends or circles; no confirmation on their part is required.

I fully expect to see some privacy outcry over this, but I think this time Facebook is pretty well covered: you need to explicitly enable ‘Subscribers’, the feature is opt-in, unlike most of the previous privacy changes. And on top of that, subscribers can only see updates and information you marked as public. If anything, this feature should make people more aware of the things they share in public on Facebook, because those are available to any member, whether you like it or not. Subscriptions only deliver an easier way of keeping track of public activity of non-friends, something you could previously do only by regularly visiting their wall.

Some other details are not that clear, for example if the 5000-friends limit applies to subscriptions as well. So can you subscribe to more than 5000 people? Does that include your existing ‘traditional’ friends or not? On the other hand I think it’s safe to assume that you can have as many subscribers as you want, just like you can (potentially) get millions of followers on Twitter; otherwise it wouldn’t work as well against the obvious competition.

Facebook share status updatesOf course, now that there is another relationship model on Facebook, we will also start seeing recommendations in the right panel for ‘People to Subscribe to’. And another thing I noticed: public status updates can now be shared, something previously reserved for links and pages.

Facebook recommended subscriptionsThe subscriptions have been adapted to existing friend relationships as well: friends become automatically ‘subscribed’ to each other. Of course, ‘friending’ still remains more powerful than ‘subscribing’ because it gives access to (most) personal information and updates. Another advantage is that now, after adding subscriptions on top of friending, you have access to better filtering: like with lists, you can choose which types of updates you want to see from each friend, for example hiding game updates from some of them. This can be done either from the person’s profile or from the news feed, as the control has been added to the hover card as well.

This is very welcomed development, as noise from the ever-increasing number of Facebook apps and games is a recurring problem and hiding every app one by one is not a very efficient way of dealing with this. On the down side, Facebook doesn’t have a way of changing the default settings for all friends or of making bulk changes (or at least I haven’t seen it yet). I can’t imagine anyone would take the time to fine-tune the news feed options for each of their hundreds of friends individually, so I fear the more powerful controls will go unnoticed like so many privacy tweaks before them. It would be much more efficient to make the changes on a list-by-list basis, but I don’t think the settings from the lists carry over to the main feed view, nor can I say what happens if you put a person in two lists with conflicting settings for the news feed.

As many have noticed, the new features have some superficial resemblance with Google+ – one-way subscriptions, new default lists and their placement in the left sidebar – but otherwise they go much further: Google+ lacks “smart circles” and the more advanced filtering options. Of course, the comparison is hardly fair, given that Facebook has been around for more than 7 years now, compared to the couple of months of Google+. The important thing here is to keep the innovation going; ironically, Facebook just implemented some things I wanted from Google+ back when it was just a rumor and I certainly am not going to complain that they launched out of Facebook and not Google or some other network.

P.S. Speaking of the dependencies between smart lists and the new filtering controls for subscriptions, I noticed that adding friends to the ‘Close friends’ list will set the subscription setting for ‘How many updates?’ to ‘All’; similarly adding someone to ‘Acquaintances’ reduces the number of updates in the news feed to ‘Only Important’. Clearly the two features have been planned and implemented together, with a common vision in mind.

Update: And the changes didn’t stop here: a mere couple of days later Facebook has changed the news feed, introduced the ticker, with even more features to come.

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