Does Facebook's Subscribe Button Betray What the Company Was Built On?

Facebook is taking this week to launch several platform "improvements" that it has been testing with a select groups of users in the last month. Today, Facebook announced a "subscribe button" that will allow users to filter stories that you want to see in the news feed.

This feature has been rumored to be in the works for a couple of weeks. We wrote about it at the end of August when several users saw it being tested with their accounts. Yet, the subscribe button goes beyond just relevance in the news feed. It fundamentally changes Facbook's original social contract.

Facebook evolved around the notion of "balanced following." You couldn't be friends with me unless I was a friend to you. At the start, Facebook held tight to that rule. As time went on, that started to evolve and erode where you could see updates of people you had sent a request to even if they had not yet responded. Later, Facebook instituted sharing options where "friends of friends" and such could see your posts if you so chose. We wrote about the Facebook filters in 2010.

The subscribe button changes that.

Here are the three main points Facebook wants you to know about the subscribe button:

  1. Choose what you see from people in the news feed
  2. Hear from people, even if you're not friends
  3. Let people hear from you, even if you're not friends

How does that adhere in anyway to the balanced follow that Facebook was built on? Really, Facebook is now taking the fundamental nature of "friending" and changing it. On one hand, it brings it much closer to how Twitter and Google Plus work. On the other, it is a distinct departure from how the site was founded.

You can filter the updates you see as well. There are choices between "all updates," "most updates" or "important updates only." You can see just photos from a friend, or life events or games they are playing (or a mixture of all those).

Users can add subscribe buttons to their own page if they see fit to do so. For instance, I am a reporter and all my posts go to Facebook (and Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus). Some people may want to subscribe to my Facebook feed to keep up with technology or sports news. If I set my updates as "public" then they will see those posts. You can then filter the types of posts you see from that person. It is not clear how granular the filters will be, but it would be an interesting feature if you could see just mobile stories from me and cut out whenever I write about security, for instance.

What is going to be user feedback to the subscribe button? Is it a betrayal of what Facebook was built on or a necessary feature to keep the news feed relevant and competitive against the likes of Google Plus and Twitter?