Facebook plans to clear up confusion about what appears in the News Feed, announce a ranking algorithm change, and preview the future of the feed at a press event on August 6. The Menlo Park HQ session will be live-streamed to Facebook’s London offices to keep European reporters in the loop. Hopefully users will gain better understanding of how to banish boring and distant acquaintances.
In an invite to American reporters for the event at 10 a.m. PST Tuesday, Facebook said that it will “be talking about News Feed, and taking a deeper look at the ranking algorithms that determine which stories appear at the top of your feed. We’ll be discussing a specific update to organic ranking that’s coming up.” And the European invite notes “We’ll also be talking about what’s coming next for News Feed.” Though not as hyped or secretive as some other Facebook press events, the fact that it’s being live-streamed to Europe denotes greater importance than Facebook’s other “whiteboard” press meetings.
The “Friend” Problem
Now 9.5 years old, Facebook has run into a problem. As we accumulate more “friends” and the definition of the word expands to include family, co-workers, and people we’ve met once, our feeds are getting cluttered. We’re fascinated by the daily lives and photos of people we know and love. But pics of the kids spawned by that guy from accounting and the relationship drama of a high school classmate make Facebook’s News Feed feel like a waste of time.
Most people don’t understand the way Facebook chooses what to show you. TheNews Feed ranking algorithm, unofficially known as “EdgeRank,” uses how close you are to someone, how popular a post is with others, how recently it was published, and many other signals to decide which of the huge numbers of posts and actions that your friends generate appear and how prominently. Articles by The New York Times’ Nick Bilton and BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel have brought up how opaque and sometimes unpredictable EdgeRank can be.
Without EdgeRank understanding, most people don’t get the importance of using the tools to refine and customize their feed — that is if they can find them. There’s the readily available feedback buttons, such as Like, comment, and share, that tell EdgeRank you’re interested in someone. But the options to “hide post”, “do not show in news feed”, “show only important posts”, and hide specific story types are hidden within drop-downs, hover cards, and the “Friend” button on people’s profiles. They require multiple clicks to use, making it a huge chore to modify the feed presence of multiple people. Yet these options are critical to quieting or muting annoying people without having to defriend them or never accept their request in the first place.
Meanwhile Facebook has struggled for years to get users to build Friend Lists of their closest chums and people with traits in common, which are now easily viewed as custom News Feeds thanks to the feed selector launched at a glitzier press bonanza in March. Lists could help people keep track of their favorite friends despite the noise if only people would use them.
And then there are businesses. Many still don’t understand which of their fans see their News Feed posts, and why they’re being asked to buy “Promoted Posts” to reach fans they already earned or paid for.
Facebook has a ton to gain from this event. Proper education could finally get everyone to explicitly help the social network to refine their News Feeds. It could boost confidence of Page admins and advertisers, as well.
Facebook did recently test out the ability to say why you were hiding someone’s News Feed post, which could give it insight into whether to hide that post from other people too, or review it for terms of service violations. I’ve got no idea exactly what will be revealed at the event, but hopefully this and more efficient feed presence options will appear eventually. At the very least it should look to make the desktop feed tools more accessible on mobile where users are increasingly accessing the service.
The News Feed is Facebook’s lifeblood. Its ambient intimacy keeps us coming back day after day, and it’s where Facebook shows its most lucrative ads. The social network is now competing for our attention, as a parade of other mobile apps try to entertain us. To stay center stage, Facebook will need to lift the curtain on EdgeRank, give us an acting class, and let us play a role in choosing what we see.