Facebook News Feed Gets Smarter— And The Ticker Makes Its Big Debut

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One of Facebook’s most important products is getting much smarter — and a little easier to use.

Less than 48 hours before its f8 developer conference, Facebook is rolling out an updated version of News Feed that does away with the two-tabbed interface that it’s had for two years now. Before today you’d have to swap between ‘Top Stories’ (a feed of stories that Facebook thought were important) and ‘Most Recent’ (a feed of your friends’ most recent actions on the site). Plenty of users clicked both of these tabs — over 50% as of last year — but Facebook has long been convinced that it wasn’t the optimal solution.

Which brings us to today’s launch. Facebook will now merge both types of content into the same feed, intelligently determining how much screen real estate to allocate to ‘Top Stories’ based on how recently you’ve logged into the site. If you’re checking Facebook ten times a day at work, then most of the items in your feed will be recent; if you’re logging in for the first time in the few days, Facebook will try to give you an overview of the most important things your friends have shared. These important stories will be denoted with a small blue triangle in the corner, and you can manually tell Facebook if it missed an important story, or if you don’t care for one of the items it deemed important (in this sense, it’s a bit like Gmail’s Priority Inbox).

This is a big change, and it’s been a long road to get here — as the site’s home page, News Feed has seen plenty of iterations over the years, particularly around the way real-time content is displayed.

In the early days of News Feed, users would see a listing of posts that Facebook felt they’d be most interested in. It worked pretty well, but it had one downside: posts were often hours old, which made the content feel stale compared to services like Twitter. Facebook unveiled its solution to this in March 2009, which it first introduced a real-time News Feed. No longer would all posts be delayed by at least 10 minutes — the new Feed would show them as they happened.

Which, of course, brought with it other issues, like the fact that it was harder to tell which posts were actually important. Facebook used a ‘Highlights’ section in the sidebar to showcase the most important stories, but those were easy to look over. So it wasn’t a big surprise when Facebook later merged highlights back into News Feed, allowing users to swap between a ‘Live Feed’ and ‘News Feed’ view (which were later renamed to Top News and Most Recent).

How’s that for a history lesson?

The second major change today is the official unveiling of the Facebook Ticker, a stream of content in the right sidebar that some users have been seeing for the last few weeks (Facebook’s VP of Engineering Mike Schroepfer says that the company has put a lot of work into making sure it gets Ticker right, hence the extensive testing).

The purpose of Ticker is pretty straightforward: it shows you a stream of your friends’ most recent activity on Facebook, as it happens. This means that every time one of your friend ‘Likes’ a piece of content, posts a photo, or comments on a status update, you’ll immediately get a notification in your Ticker. And if you mouse-over one of the updates, Facebook will show a pop-over with relevant information (for example, if a friend checked into a venue, you’ll see a Bing map).

At first glance Ticker may not sound like a big deal (after all, you’re going to see the most important updates in your News Feed), but it may well become one of the site’s most important features. The immediacy of these updates means it’s easy to tell if a piece of content is quickly going viral among your friends, or if they’re participating in a particularly active discussion. And, perhaps more important, it gives you a near-constant stream of stuff to look at, which means it’s probably a great way to kill time (this is one reason, I suspect, why Twitter has become popular). Ticker will also be accesible throughout the site: it shows up next to everyone’s News Feed, and if you widen your browser window, the Ticker will show up in a persistent right sidebar, above the chat box.

Finally, Facebook is boosting the size of photo thumbnails in your feed, which makes them nicer to look at (and more inviting to click on).