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To Win The Newsfeed, Facebook Should Put Its Users In Control

By - April 01, 2014


Lost in the latest Facebook kerfuffle (if you’ve missed it, read this cheeky Eat24 post, and the hundreds of articles it prompted) is the fact that we all seemed quite confused about what Facebook’s newsfeed is supposed to be. Is it an intimate channel for peer to peer communication, where you stay in touch with people who matter to you? Is is a place you go to find out what’s happening in the world at large, a watercooler of sorts, a newspaper, as Zuckerberg has said? Is it a marketing channel, where any brand can pay for the right to pitch you things based on your stated or inferred interests? Is it all of these things? Can it be?

We’re in the midst of finding out. Of course, I have an opinion. It boils down to this: Facebook’s newsfeed should be what I tell it to be, not what Facebook – or anyone else – tells me it should be. If I want to fill my newsfeed with Eat24 sushi porn, then it should be brimming with it. If I tell it to only show musings from Dwight Schrute and  Marc Cuban, then that’s what I want to see. If I love what Mickey D’s is posting and want to see the best of their posts as determined by engagement, then Big Mac me. And if I prefer to keep it to my immediate family, then damnit, show me that.

If the cost of giving me that kind of control is that I have to see a marketer’s post every five or six entries, I’m cool with that. That’s what Twitter does, and it doesn’t bother me, it’s table stakes, I get it. But what I think Facebook’s got wrong is where they’ve instrumented the controls. Facebook spends an inordinate amount of time and energy tweaking a black box set of algorithms to figure out what it thinks I want in my feed, boiling an ever-larger ocean of content into a stream of stuff it believes I want. For reasons I can’t fathom, it doesn’t give me the chance to truly curate my feed, beyond some clunky lists and filters which, from what I can tell, are only good for blocking people or indicating preference for a particular feed (but not saying, for example, “show me everything from this source.”)

Facebook is therefore viewed as paternalistic – it has a vibe of “we’ll figure out what’s best to show you.” You have *some* input into the feed, but you are not encouraged to actively curate it the way you can curate friends or brands on Instagram or Twitter (and I think both have a long way to go as well). I think Facebook could trump all this debate once and for all by putting the end-user of its service in charge, and iterating the newsfeed based on that feedback. Scary, perhaps, but ultimately liberating and, more importantly, truly authentic. Over time, the value will accrue back. As we say around the office at NewCo, give (control) to get (benefit back).

 

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18 thoughts on “To Win The Newsfeed, Facebook Should Put Its Users In Control

  1. CarSociable says:

    Well said, at the end the user should be in control of what they see. That’s why Interest based social sites I believe are about to take off.

  2. TallestMan87 says:

    That sounds all well and good, but I believe the average user has little idea what he or she actually wants to see until they see it. And the average user certainly couldn’t put together a comprehensive list of things they want to see (and you wouldn’t want to ask them to).

    • johnbattelle says:

      I utterly disagree. “The average user” is the same person who built Pinterest, Twitter, blogging, etc.

  3. Andy Price says:

    I completely agree. Here’s the problem. FB could give a rat’s ass what their users think…They’re too busy abusing them. I ask myself every day why I even use it but I do love seeing all my pals and their kids and what’s going on. And FB isn’t the only player who shows utter disdain for user experience. I am still baffled as to why I can’t easily set up Google to give me quality RSS or customize content for me. Annoying. Feels like we’re stuck in an innovation time warp WRT digital media. BTW the fat lady in the video in this post is downright terrifying.

  4. joshsc says:

    Why doesn’t Facebook put users in control? That’s actually what it does already. If you Like, comment or click on a person or Page’s posts, you see more of them. While some tiny fraction of savvy users like you and me would use and enjoy these super fine-tuned controls you suggest, most wouldn’t and it would be a waste of resources to build and maintain. An algorithm that automatically learns what you Like is probably the best solution for the most people, and that what it has. Facebook is doing a terrible job of communicating to users that they already are in control, and that since everyone wants their posts seen by everyone but people only read a finite amount of feed each day, things get squeezed out. And as people like more Pages and add more friends, there is more competition for space in the feed so organic reach naturally drops over time. – Josh Constine

    • johnbattelle says:

      Hey Josh, thanks for the comment. I take your point, but I am not sure users wouldn’t like more instrumentation. I think we’re about to see an explosion of instrumentation because of a combination of easy of use/UX advances, social norms shifting, and pure utility of pushing the intelligence to the nodes – literally where the node is the person, not a brittle algorithm.

    • johnbattelle says:

      Oh and also, agree entirely with your point about how FB communicates to its users.

  5. Michael Brill says:

    The problem is that giving user control exposes just how poor we are at eliciting user intent. State of the art is basically lists and filters and that gets overwhelming really quickly. So we come at it from the machine learning side and tell people how we’re creating hyper-personalized curation automatically… it’s easy. Of course, your newsfeed is as filled with irrelevant crap as everyone else’s. Calling this type of auto-curation paternalistic is hubris… how about false-positive and borderline random.

    I agree with your perspective. We are so completely willing to assume that throwing more data and more algorithms at that data will magically solve our problems despite the evidence to the contrary. Maybe take 10% of that investment and put it into better technology for users to control their environment. I think we’d all be better for it.

  6. 6 one way half a dozen another says:

    Google+ has a really good system of arranging the “circles” (“friends”) that you want to see because it is also how you can share creating some to for reading only and some for sharing only. And you get a bit more control (more, standard, fewer) over what the algorithm shows in your “all” feed but get all of the posts in your circles’ feeds.
    (insert usual bitch ‘n’ moan about Google+ from you, the reader, here)
    I also think that you have a point, but, as another reader mentioned, people just add too many “friends” and pages to realistically keep up with all of the updates that generates and at this late in the game, most people would just skip using those kinds of tools. They don’t even bother to learn to use the provided tools, even when Facebook brought them up during the previous redesign through pop-up boxes.
    Facebook and its endless quest for all of the marketing info it can possibly squeeze out of everyone is the real culprit. An incessant harangue of people and pages to like gets lots of info for Facebook’s advertising side, but does little for the user but cause fewer and fewer of these lesser updates to be seen.
    That is Facebook’s real problem: themselves. And they will never stop in their marketing campaign to get you to tell them what you “like”, even if it ruins your experience.

    • johnbattelle says:

      A little maintenance and nuance across the system by each of us, encouraged by FB and made painless, would solve a lot of this.

  7. The problem is that without an algorithm the feed gets too noisy, as you noted in 3/28 article re: Twitter. Seems like what we really need is less “clunky” controls, right? What if FB were to give us “sliders” at the top of the news feed that controlled the most critical elements of the algorithm, allowing us to easily “turn up” or “turn down” the algorithm’s multipliers on key elements (# of shared friends, recency, post popularity, etc.) People could adjust these dials like they used to adjust the color hue, tint, and brightness of their TV screens – and stop when the feed looks “just right”.

  8. george says:

    I believe FB needs to begin by clearly defining the product, as you say; what is the newsfeed suppose to be. At present, it’s a bit of the cart before the horse, The question then becomes, who pays FB to build/pay for flexibility, control and content.

    I’m less critical of FB, Google and others, it’s their interpretation and conviction level to be open for better or worse.

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