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Facebook’s News Feed isn’t just broken, it’s getting worse

Facebook times square news feedThe Facebook News Feed was first introduced all the way back in 2006. “News Feed highlights what’s happening in your social circles on Facebook. It updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again,” early Facebook engineer Ruchi Sanghvi wrote at the time. “These features are not only different from anything we’ve had on Facebook before, but they’re quite unlike anything you can find on the Web.”

She was right, to a (debated) degree. Facebook ended up patenting the News Feed in 2010 (technically, Facebook has rights over “dynamically providing a news feed about a user of a social network”).

The News Feed changed the way we digest content from social networks, and has inarguably influenced all other platforms that have come since. But is it working anymore?

I’ve seen way too much of this lately:

fb news feed status

I don’t know the person who wrote this. I don’t know any of the people mentioned. I don’t know anyone who’s commented on this. I do, however, know the person who Liked the status update. That’s it. It’s beyond me why Facebook thinks this is important enough to surface.

And there’s this:

fb news feed liking status

In this case, I do know the person who wrote the original post. It makes sense to me that this would hit my feed. But why would the fact that they further commented on this post show up when I never even saw the original post itself? That’s getting just a little meta, isn’t it? Especially considering the fact that Facebook is supposed to be introducing nested comments; this means that the site will soon allow you to Like or comment on comments. Which, apparently, means I could someday see an update in my News Feed that says something like “Adam commented on a comment on his own post.” It’s hard to think about an update I would care less about.

There’s also a lot more of this showing up:

fb news feed doritos

I don’t Like Dorito’s (emphasis on the capitol “L.” I have no ill will or real feelings toward actual Dorito’s). The person that posted this isn’t on my Close Friends list. But it’s a sponsored post – so, obviously, it gets a significant bump.

facebook hours news feedAnother strange choice is the timing with which items are hitting my News Feed. Take a look at the image at right.

The first post was written 12 hours ago. The second nine, the third two hours ago, and the last one, a whopping 17 hours ago. So what signals is Facebook using to determine that they show up in the order they do? I’d imagine the more comments or Likes something gets, the higher the status gets bumped… but then this arrangement doesn’t make sense. What it has to make you wonder, of course, is what you’re missing out on. And don’t put too much faith in using the “Most Recent” view; that is showing you the most recent top stories… so it’s really just the same content you’d see otherwise, just in chronological order.

The News Feed is increasingly being overrun with content we don’t care about, and it’s taken a distinct turn for the worse lately. Facebook has given us tools to try and ease this pain: We can hide status updates from overzealous or obnoxious posters, the ticker was suppose to help cut down on clutter, and the lists we’re able to curate was supposed to help us limit who can see our content, but whose content we most often see. Lately, none of that seems to be working – and the effect is that Facebook is becoming boring.

The News Feed is the number one stop when you log in; it’s where you spend most of your time, where you look for interesting social information to dive deeper into. It’s the jumping off point into Facebook – and it’s doing a terrible job of engaging us right now. The News Feed algorithm gained yet more attention this past fall when a programmer found a URL revealing what your totally unfiltered, un-Facebook managed stream would look like. Facebook argued this wasn’t truly all of what was hitting the News Feed, but it certainly made it clear that users were unhappy with the current system as is.

Facebook talked a little about how it determines what to show you around the same time as the “all view” story broke. If you interact with someone’s or a page’s posts often, you see more of that; if other people ignore a post, you probably won’t see it; if you often comment or Like photos, you’ll see more photos, and if you Like a status update about someone getting engaged, you’ll see more of that, etc.; if posts are receiving complaints, you are unlikely to see them when you log in.

The problem is that for Facebook to properly curate your News Feed, it’s requiring your interaction. You have to exhibit some sort of behavior for the social network to determine what you want to see, and from whom. The problem is that as it currently stands, I’m not motivated to interact with very much of the content I’m seeing on Facebook. I don’t care who Liked a post from a person I don’t know. I don’t care who commented on their own status. I’m going to keep ignoring these updates, keep getting bored, and log in less and less. It’s a cruel cycle. 

Maybe it’s that there are too many mechanisms available for our own tinkering with the News Feed. In addition to all the “Show in News Feed” or hiding functions we’re able to use, there’s also post promotion. It’s a veritable cornucopia of ways in which users are able to manipulate the natural stream of the News Feed. Is too much human the problem?

Whatever’s to blame, fingers crossed it gets fixed. Because right now, the gateway News Feed is supposed to be for Facebook is all locked up and uninviting.