24 September 2011

Facebook is now a news site(?)

The updates keep flowing in from this month: after introducing subscriptions and smart lists, this week another message popped up after I logged in, announcing further changes to the News Feed. This time the two previous views, ‘Top News’ and ‘Most Recent’ have been merged into a single stream and rebranded as ‘Top Stories’. Naturally, the updates are all algorithmically selected by Facebook by taking into account the relationship between you and the person and the amount of interaction with the update. The chronological feed is still there, but somewhere down on the page, buried under the things Facebook thinks are more ‘interesting’ to you. Then there is the news ticker, a smaller version of ‘Most recent’ with real-time activity, sticking to the right side of the screen everywhere you go. And to borrow more random stuff from +, Facebook added two new buttons to the top bar on the right, linking to the profile and the home feed. An odd and useless choice, since the Facebook logo and your picture on the left do exactly the same thing. Facebook Top Stories

While I was mildly positive about the previous round of updates, especially about the smart lists and more fine-grained control, I definitely don’t like this new stream. I simply don’t trust algorithms, either from Facebook or Google or anyone else, choosing what I see and whom I interact with. Sure, you can start tweaking your filters and remove stories, but will that really change anything? I prefer looking at the feed chronologically, but that’s not really an option anymore. The new feed + ticker and combination looks alien, impersonal, and alternating between top and recent stories in the same stream highly confusing. Coupled with subscriptions, this can get very noisy very quickly: I have subscribed to a single user and he already dominates the top stories at certain times during the day; how many smaller updates from friends am I missing during that time? The only solution I found is to use lists more intensively, practically ignoring the main feed and consuming updates only through my custom lists; it looks like they are still served chronologically there, at least for now. I can’t stop thinking, what stops Facebook from inserting adds and other promoted updates in the news feed, like started doing?

The overall reaction on the web looks mostly negative, even among the commenters to the announcement. It looks to me like Facebook tries to be everything to all people, but has started to loose sight of their original mission: we’re far removed from a social utility that connects you with the people around you. Personally I don’t want a news site or a place to share stuff, there are many other better solutions out there. Facebook Top stories options

On top of that, Facebook has also changed the notification system, reducing the number of emails users receive. This can prove a double-edged sword for the network: people who regularly visit will still come to the site regardless of the notifications they receive per email, but casual users will probably just assume nothing new has happened and log in less and less to Facebook. You can still return to the usual frequency from ‘Account Settings’ by unchecking ‘Send me important updates and summary emails instead of individual notification emails’ under ‘Notifications’. I personally have switched to following notifications through RSS in , but how many of the 700+ Million users have heard of that?Facebook Recent Stories in the new News Feed

But bigger changes still are on their way, as announced at the latest f8 developer conference, some of them more concerning than others. It all revolves round the new ticker and the Open Graph, which will allow more actions beside the already ubiquitous ‘Like’ and a kind of frictionless sharing never seen before. I have yet to see this in actions, as it still needs to be included into apps and approved by the users to take off, but some reactions have already crystalized: from the privacy problems to noise and reduced relevance to down-right fear. I for one think that this kind of automatic sharing will actually devalue the sharing experience instead of making it more streamlined, because it takes away the personal, the social element; you can’t know if the people have shared content with intent or the app did it for them. It also completely kills curation on Facebook, which contradicts the whole ‘Subscription’ concept. Facebook Ticker

As for Timeline, the new Facebook profile that will showcase your entire ‘life’ as recorded in the interactions and updates on the social network, I am not even remotely impressed. The concept is nice, but there are problems with the implementation, making the idea less useful: I noticed some time ago that Facebook records photos by the date you upload them and discards any metadata in the file, resulting in photo albums being horribly misplaced in the story of your life. Even 6 months on, the problem persists, as noted in this update by Jesse Stay, asking how to correct the date of photos. In the end, do you want to spend time fixing photo dates that Facebook deleted in the first place just to have an accurate profile? Who does that benefit more, the user or the network?Facebook broken photo date in Timeline

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