Ah, the news feed, Facebook’s party central. Purveyor of addictive updates on friends and former acquaintances. And ground zero in the battle for what the social network was, is, and where it’s going.
What shows up in that news feed, an interview with the relevant manager at Facebook reveals, is the result of an endless chess game of algorithmic amendments by the company trying to please its users — as well as endless rounds of complaints from those users.
Case in point: earlier this week, a programmer uncovered a Facebook URL that appeared to show your feed unfiltered, algorithm free, with all of your friends’ updates in chronological order. That was news to Facebook, which has no idea where the page came from.
“That was not something that was ever live,” News Feed Product Manager Will Cathcart told Mashable. “It was a mix of our current algorithms and an old approach. It was ranking by [interesting] friends, rather than by which posts were likely to be interesting.
“As soon as we heard about it, we turned it off.”
So there you have it: mysterious hybrid algorithms are capable of floating around the Facebook ether. (Perhaps not surprising in a young company culture of self-avowed “hackers” whose motto is “move fast and break things.”)
More disturbing, though, is the speed with which Facebook moved to shut it down. Why not let it stick around and see if users liked it? Because it wasn’t being properly explained, Cathcart insists. It would have caused confusion. “It was being touted as everything,” he says, “and it wasn’t everything.”
But isn’t this a sign that there is a call for a complete and unabridged version of the news feed alongside the “top stories” and “most recent” options? (By the way, don’t put too much stock in that “most recent” — it’s merely a chronological presentation of the same “top stories” picks).
Cathcart demurs. “When we talk to people, they say they want to see everything, but they actually want to see all the games, or all the photos,” he says. “There’s really a lot of content happening on Facebook, and if you show it to them, what they want is something more drilled down.”
However, Cathcart admits the user testing that gave rise to this conclusion isn’t recent. It was conducted before 2011′s F8 conference, which was the first we heard about Timeline. There have been one or two changes to the site since then.
There is, of course, the infamous real-time ticker you can choose to have pop up in the top right hand corner of the homepage, which details every last one your friends’ Facebook doings as they happen. There’s no chance to pause and reflect on them, as in the regular news feed. Blink and you’ve missed it.
Even Cathcart admits the ticker “feels a bit ADD.” For that matter, he willingly concedes that the news feed algorithm concentrates too much on friends you’ve interacted with, rather than letting that all-important update from a friend of old be randomly discovered. “We’re trying to do a better job on that,” he says.
“People value seeing a mix of things. All complaints about that from users are valid.”
Just don’t question the need for an algorithmic filter at all. Cathcart draws a line in the sand here; he insists the algorithm is ultimately more useful than user scrolling alone.
“For many of our users, there are thousands of things that have happened on Facebook,” he says. “They don’t have the time to go through all of those things. We can make their experience better by trying to pick out things where they’re most likely to find engagement.”
And if you really do want a complete, unfiltered, algorithm-free feed from all your friends? Cathcart’s suggestion: create a Facebook list, then put all of your contacts in it. “We don’t expect a whole lot of people will put everyone on the list,” he laughs.
by Chris Taylor