Facebook loosens grip – allows users to customize news feeds … within reason

All the programming in the world can’t prevent Facebook from cluttering your news feed with drivel sometimes. The social network for years has tinkered with the formulas powering its recommendation engine, but in an admission that people sometimes know better than algorithms, it’s finally ceding some of that control to users. Today, Facebook announced granular controls that let you fine-tune the composition of  your news feed.

The most significant addition, a preferences tool, allows you to prioritize posts from certain sources over others. Instead of letting Facebook guess which friends and pages you’d most like to see first, you can manually choose pages and friends to forever sit at the top of your news feed. If that newfound freedom leaves you plagued by indecision, though, you can still turn to Facebook for suggestions — a new screen will order friends based on how much you like and comment on them.

Facebook’s also making it easier to identify friends whom you’ve “unfollowed” (i.e., hidden in your newsfeed) and find pages you might like to follow. Muted feeds will collate in a list from which you can quickly again start following them, and suggestions for pages you might like to follow — based, of course, on the social network’s best guess of your predilections — will appear when you add a new connection.

These features aren’t the first form of manual customization to hit the network — Facebook introduced the aforementioned “unfollow” feature in November — but they’re easily the most comprehensive. Before, short of sorting your entire list of friends into ill-defined categories, your news feed was entirely at Facebook’s computational mercy. “The goal of News Feed is to show you the stories that matter most to you,” Product Manager  Jacob Frantz wrote in a blog post. “We know that ultimately you’re the only one who truly knows what is most meaningful to you and that is why we want to give you more ways to control what you see.”

That’s an unexpected sentiment for a company so steeped in automation. Facebook’s neural network of machines collect troves of data on users every day, measuring now only what you click, like, type, and follow, but how much time you linger on pages and posts. Today that all feeds into the network’s news feed and ad-serving algorithms, but in the future might be used to predict individual behavior. Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research lab is working on intelligence perceptive enough to, for instance, prevent you from uploading an embarrassing photo.

The new manual controls are very much geared toward entrenched Facebook users — don’t expect your friends who are creeped out by the social network’s image-recognition technology and location tracking to be swayed — but those who’ve been hankering for a more personalized news feed will be very much pleased. Facebook says the features are rolling out to iPad and iPhone users starting today, with Android and desktop toggles to come over the next few weeks.

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