Facebook just made one of the biggest changes to the site's user experience since the introduction of the News Feed three years ago. News Feed was the place in the very center of the site where all the activities of a user's friends were displayed in reverse chronological order. That feature is now called the Live Feed and the News Feed has become a filtered display of activity highlights instead.
In September 2006 the News Feed was a radical idea; thousands of Facebook users revolted against the idea that all their friends would be shown every photo they uploaded, when their relationship status changed and other information as soon as it was available. Today we live in a different world. Almost everything is social and the new challenge is tackling information overload. That's what Facebook just did today and it's going to be very important for the future.
Everyone's trying to solve this problem. There are inbox filtering services like ReMail, Threadsy and the experimental new Mozilla Raindrop. There are column filters in stream readers like Tweetdeck and Seesmic. Google Reader yesterday introduced a "magic" filter view for the most popular items across the whole network. FriendFeed, a small but innovative social aggregator started by one of the creators of GMail and acquired by Facebook for $50 million this summer, offers a "best of day" view of any stream of updates you're looking at.
That FriendFeed view is the closest thing to the new Facebook News Feed, but a Facebook spokesperson told us that the two products are unrelated.
Everyone's trying to tackle information overload. Step one, get more people sharing information. Step two, figure out how to create a personalized, high-value view of all that information by surfacing the most important updates for each user. Step three, profit!
How It Works
The new News Feed view is based on an algorithm that scores every update coming in through what's now called the Live Feed. That scoring is based on the number of "likes" and comments an item has received and how much you personally have interacted with the update's author in the past.
A related algorithm was used in the past to create the "highlights" section on the right-hand side of the Facebook home page. That section was getting too little interaction and didn't include things like important status updates, the company says. If your sister posted a status update saying that she's pregnant, a Facebook spokesperson told us today, that wouldn't show up in the old highlights view. It should show up in your News Feed now.
So three big changes: 1. The new Live Feed is linked-to at the top of the page and shows a number of new items since your last visit. 2. Highlights plus hot status updates are now the default, the new News Feed. 3. Birthdays and other important events have taken the place of the old Highlights section; they are of particular interest to users and will now be easier to see.
What It Means
Facebook says that after viewing your new News Feed, you can go check out the raw Live Stream of all the most recent updates from your contacts. That's the opposite of the way FriendFeed did it and neither strategy should be taken for granted. Decisions like this impact a major method of communication for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
By showing the News Feed highlights as the default view, Facebook will probably encourage users to pay more attention to, interact with more and grow closer to the people they already have a history of interacting with and the events that are already popular. Weak social connections and your personal long-tail of content are less prioritized in this view.
The inclusion of a user's past behavior as a criteria for hotness is key, though. It's not just a popularity contest. Your News Feed is your little universe and popularity is defined in relative terms.
That, again, is a particular strategy. The new Google Reader Popular View, for example, appears to evaluate popularity across all users in total.
What It Could Mean In the Future
Someday social networking is going to be like the telephone. Today you can't send messages from Facebook to people on MySpace or LinkedIn but that isn't going to last forever. Just as you can call someone who uses T-Mobile from your Sprint phone, someday sharing and messaging between online social networks will be a given.
How will social networks retain users then? Why stick with Facebook when some smaller service offers a decentralized social networking service outside of Facebook's control but still tied into your friends on Facebook and elsewhere?
These services will someday have to compete on user experience, when they no longer have your social connections locked-in. The service that does the best job filtering up the most important information you have coming your way will likely be the service you stick with. That's going to be a key area of competition between social networks.
How well will Facebook do at filtering the Live Stream of content? We're about to find out and it's going to make a big difference in how we experience the web. That will only be more true as more and more people begin publishing content.
There's been a lot of emphasis on the live stream of real-time web content, but Facebook now joins many other services in recognizing that the best value is sometimes built by combining real time and slower assets.