The power behind the changes at Facebook, and what it means for news publishers

The new version of Facebook is:

a) a powerful upgrade that gives users the ability to fine-tune their news feed, seeing only the updates they care about, and finally muting the noise from friends with whom they really aren’t that close.

b) a classic example of developers over-thinking their product, creating an incomprehensible jumble of updates in no apparent order, instead of the simple stream of posts we were used to seeing on the Facebook home page.

The correct answer (IMHO) is, c) both.

Facebook’s changes to its users’ front pages illustrates a classic developers’ dilemma: How do you balance power with simplicity in an application? Facebook’s added plenty of new features in this update, empowering users to take more control of the way news from friends and followed pages is displayed. But in doing so, Facebook’s created default settings that are leaving too many of its users confused, frustrated and angry. (Thursday night Facebook addressed some of those criticisms by adding a link to jump down to the most recent stories, bypassing Facebook’s selection of the “top stories.”)

All this is before the public launch of its new Timeline feature for users’ profile pages, now available to developers and select few other Facebook users.

Count me among the Facebook users initially ticked off by the changes. After confronting the unholy mess of my Facebook feed, I tweeted: “I like Twitter because, unlike FB and G+, it shows me all the updates from those I follow, in simple chronological order. Is that so hard?”

But curiosity (or masochism) kicked in and I decided to poke around the “new” Facebook. I soon discovered that I could alter the “weight” that Facebook gave to posts from each of my friends, choosing to get “All Updates,” “Most Updates” or “Only Important” updates from each friend. I also can opt out of getting various types of updates from those friends, including their comments and likes on other posts.

Unfortunately, the user interface to make these changes stinks. It’s a pain in the rear to have to set your preferences for each friend individually, rather than being able to drag and drop friends into one of the three priority categories. It’d be nice to be able to opt out of certain types of updates for everyone once, too, instead of having to declare you don’t want friends’ game updates individually. (Maybe Facebook allows this, but I couldn’t find where or how to do it, and I spent hours working with this new interface yesterday.)

Of course, when I and millions of other users get around to telling Facebook all this, we’ll have given Facebook an amazing amount of power to refine its social map of world. That makes me feel funny about sharing this even more detailed information about my friendships and relationships. Heaven knows I wouldn’t want Facebook to share with my friends how I’ve – in essence – ranked them. But giving Facebook this information does get me the feed I want, so I did it anyway.

What does this mean for journalists and other publishers online? I should note that Facebook now has given you the ability to allow people to “subscribe” to your updates without you having to befriend them in return. This enables Facebook to become a direct competitor with Twitter, where following never had to be mutual. (You have to opt into allowing subscriptions for this to happen, in case you are one who doesn’t want non-friends seeing your updates.)

Personally, I’m not opting in. I like having one social network that’s just limited to my offline friends and acquaintances, where I can share personal notes about me and my family. If you want to read what I have to say about the industry and other news, follow me on Twitter or Google+.

Currently, subscriptions are available only on personal accounts, and not on publishers’ pages. That’s because pages never required reciprocity. Any Facebook user has had the ability to follow (aka “like”) a page without needing the page to reciprocate. It would be nice, though, to see Facebook achieve some consistency by using the “subscribe” vocabulary when referencing pages, too. And to allow users to opt in or out of specific types of updates from pages, as they now can from personal accounts.

Here’s a warning for publishers, though. With people now able to opt out of “comments and likes” from their friends, that has the potential to dramatically weaken the power of the “Like” button so many of us have installed on our sites, if this option is widely exercised. I also feel worry for those publishers who’ve invested time and effort in building massive Facebook followings, only to have their posts lost on Facebook’s confusing new homepage.

Yet I look hopefully at the changes, too. If you’re not yet using Facebook’s Recommendations Box, give it a glance today. That feature automatically builds links to the most popular stories on your website among Facebook users. I’ve installed it at the bottom of pages on one of my websites in the hopes that it will improve time spent on site by directing readers to an automatically updated list of the most popular (not just most read) stories on the site.

I’m also hopeful that if Facebook cleans up the user interface for its new subscription preferences, it might help the visibility of publishers’ pages on the site. Once I went through the arduous task, Facebook cleared away posts from casual friends, giving more links on my news feed to the people and pages I most want to follow.

I love that, from a user’s perspective. And I love it from a publisher’s perspective, too. Sure, Facebook’s a mess now, but there’s great new power within it. If Facebook can find a way to clean up its current UI mess, it could end up helping publishers by better connecting them with their most interested readers.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:

    There’s a great Facebook App called “Circle Hack,” which allows you to add to Facebook the drag-and-drop capability of Circles in Google+ (probably the only good feature of Google+ as far as I’m concerned).
    Then you can just drag people into appropriate groups, and exclude those groups in privacy settings.

    It doesn’t make up for the fact that Facebook’s focus seems to be all on looks and not as much on security/usability lately, but hey, it helps.