Facebook's Answer To Pay-to-Play: The "Following" Feed

Worried that you might miss an update to Facebook Pages you subscribe to? Or are you concerned that your legions of followers aren't seeing your shared stories? Either way, Facebook has an answer: its new "Following" feed.

On Thursday, Facebook updated its News Feed with a new look that emphasizes photos prominently, shares a common look and feel with the Facebook mobile apps, and breaks out undates into separate sections, or feeds. For now, Facebook is highlighting feeds that include photos, games, music, "all friends," "close friends," and the "Following" feed, which includes those brands and people that have enabled followers, allowing users who aren't actually friends to monitor their posts anyway.

In practice, the new feeds slice the normal News Feed into different sections, highlighting more updates in a given category. In using the new News Feed layout, I saw a few more photos in the Photo feed, for example, than I saw in my general News Feed.

Feed Me

That also seems to be the case within the other new Feeds, which may help alleviate concerns that Facebook is engaging in "pay-to-play" tactics. Of course, some users may look at the new Feeds as a walled garden of sorts, where subscribers will have to specifically seek out new material publishers are posting.

At the end of 2011, Facebook began adding "Sponsored Stories," or ads, to the News Feed. Of late, the company has been asking users to pay to promote their posts, on the order of $7 or so for ordinary users. Things came to a head earlier this week, when Nick Bilton of the New York Times essentially accused Facebook of encouraging a pay-to-play scheme. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban also said he had been encouraged to pay Facebook to increase the number of people who would see his posts.

At the time, Facebook denied the charges, saying its algorithms have made recent attempts to focus more on higher-quality stories, and that engagement was actually up for social media figures with more than 10,000 followers.

Somewhat surprisingly, the topic didn't come up during the main question-and-answer session at Facebook's rollout of the new News Feed at its Menlo Park headquarters on Thursday. But Facebook executives said privately that the new "Following" feed solves the problem.

Facebook: The Pay-To-Play Problem Is Solved

"At a high level, we're trying to help each person to get exactly the posts they want, and that differs from person to person," Christopher Cox, vice president of product at Facebook, said in an interview. "The tricky part for Pages and content publishers on a large scale is that on the one hand, [there's] too much page spam in my feed, and on the other hand, I want everybody to see every post I have. And those two things are irreconcilable."

"What we're trying to do is move the front page forward in a way that minimizes the amount of spam people feel they're getting, but also helps publishers increase their audience," Cox said. "The nice thing is that with the Following feed is that you're going to have a place where people can go and check out the people that they're following. And it will be easier for a journalist to say, 'You want to see my stuff? Go here.'"

As Cox said publicly, the main News Feed will also include posts from people and publishers that a user has historically engaged with. "So if you typically click on a lot of Thomas Friedman posts, you'll still see a lot of Thomas Friedman," Cox said.

Placing publishers, friends, "close friends", and others in their own feeds is certainly reminiscent of another social network, Google+, which uses the concept of user-grouped "Circles" to organize what its users see. Facebook's new Feeds are a step back in the direction of algorithmic choice, in that Facebook is still deciding what content to surface to the user. But by also organizing them by topic, Facebook is aligning more with its users, and how they search for social media.

The problem, of course, is that the new feeds really don't eliminate the personal "pay-to-play" problem, where a user that is desperate to tell the world that his cat is missing, for example, can't be sure that all of his friends and family will actually see the post. In that case, pay-to-play may be the only viable solution. But at least Nick Bilton should be happier.