Tipping Pitches: Technology: Facebook's News and Live Feeds


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Technology: Facebook's News and Live Feeds

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While I'm quick to make fun of Facebook's users for their incessant and irrational whining over every change that the social network makes, I do admit that there could be better communication when changes are made.

There is a Facebook Blog that will explain changes as they're rolled out, but unless you are subscribed to that blog or a "Fan" of Facebook, you will remain in the dark.

Yet, even their overview of the recent changes didn't do a particularly great job of explaining the differences between the News and Live feeds.  Even if it had, the site needs to highlight these differences when they roll out their changes.

Don't get me wrong, I still think you're a loser if you can't eventually figure it out yourself through use of the site.  It's really not that complicated.  But let me help you.  If it means one less ignorant Facebook user, I have done my job.

Live Feed
It's what the Live Feed is meant to be -- live.  Now, apparently there are still some bugs in it (or were), and the feed doesn't always update in real time for everyone.  Could be a browser compatibility issue, but it seems to always work for me.  If I don't think it's updating, I simply click on the "News Feed" button on the left like I did before this change was made to refresh the feed.  In other words, if you hate change, you should like it when it's not updating in real time.

Other than actually making the feed live again, they've added content back into the feed that was previously there in other iterations but taken away.  You'll notice that you'll now see the following types of "news" in your Live Feed:

"[Person X] and [Person Y] are now friends."
"[Person X] is attending [Event X]."
"[Person X] became a fan of [Page X]."

This change has drawn some criticism from people who say that it litters their feed with stuff they don't care about.  I like it, and I'm glad it's back.

It's also a smart strategy.  Before, you only saw this stuff if you clicked on the "People You May Know" or "Connections" area on the right (to be honest, I don't remember what it was labeled now).  I've got to think that a high percentage of people never used this.  I did, but it was a chore since I'd have to X out hundreds of people and pages before I'd actually find something or someone I wanted to connect with.

My bet is that this little change will significantly improve "friending" and "fanning."  So to assure growth of the site, this change (though it's a feature that was previously taken away) makes a whole lot of sense.

That said, Facebook would be smart to provide a drop-down option to "Hide Similar Updates."  Currently, with regards to these types of updates, you can only hide everything from that individual.  Facebook should allow you to hide friend updates the way that you can hide application updates.  Of course, they may not allow this intentionally, at least in the early going, so that people learn to accept those items in their feed.

Eventually, it would be smart to allow removal of these items, if a person chooses, because the live feed becomes difficult to use for people with a lot of friends.  I have about 500 (not real life friends, but digital ones), and it's not too bad.  But I can see how it could be a big mess for someone with 1,000 or more friends.  It's not just that there is so much info to sort through, but that it's also constantly updating in real time.

Others have pointed this out (you've likely seen a status update with this information), but if all you want to see is friends' status updates, you can alter your Live Feed.  Simply click "More" on the right and drag "Status Updates" to the top.  Then click on Status Updates.  This then becomes your default view.

There's not much else to say about the Live Feed.  It's a little different than it was before, but if you've used Facebook long enough you've likely seen a very similar format in the past.

News Feed
Yes, Facebook could explain the differences better between News Feed and Live Feed.  It's confusing, especially when the tab on the left reads "News Feed" and it actually includes both feeds.

Since Facebook doesn't explain it and people don't want to figure it out for themselves, let me break it down for you.

News Feed is a highlight section of the popular things that have happened during the past 24 hours or so.  Not sure on the time period, but the cutoff appears to be some time during the past day.

Unlike the Live Feed, the News Feed does not update in real time.  In fact, it doesn't even display items in chronological order.  This is particularly confusing to people at first.  Users hate it until they realize the application of the feed.

If you are on Facebook 24/7, the News Feed has little use to you.  It isn't completely useless (I'll provide an example shortly), but it's intended for the more casual user who checks in once per day or every couple of days.

News Feed is a "What Did I Miss" feed.  If you were away for a day, you probably don't want to scroll through every single item in your Live Feed.  You want the highlights.  That's what this is.

Some users are offended (yes, they are easily offended) by the attempt by Facebook to highlight things you will find interesting.  "How do they know what I find interesting?!"  Yes, yes, let's overreact.  But it's really not that complicated.

Take a look at the top items in your News Feed.  If you won't, I will.  Here are some basic characteristics of what is there for me now:

Item 1:  eight comments, posted three hours ago
Item 2:  10 comments, five thumbs up, posted about 20 hours ago
Item 3:  seven comments, one thumbs up, posted about 20 hours ago
Item 4:  two comments, one thumbs up, posted about 12 hours ago
Item 5:  two comments, two thumbs up, posted about 18 hours ago

So, the algorithm favors lots of comments and thumbs up.  And it appears that if you have two items with about the same number of comments, the most recent one is first.  Timeliness is a factor.

Facebook is saying that they believe you are likely to find something interesting if the friends you choose to associate with, having similar interests, also find it interesting.  Is that such a bad assumption?  Seems pretty reasonable to me.

Maybe I accept change easily, but I think this change makes a whole lot of sense.  I was on vacation recently and put it to use.  Also, I read an update today that I did not comment on, but I wanted to follow it.  Even though it fell off of the first screen of my Live Feed, I was able to easily follow it by going to my News Feed since it was getting a lot of responses.

Operation Engagement
These latest changes appear aimed at engaging the less active users and reingaging the inactive users.  The revamped "Suggestions" area certainly follows this strategy as well.

Therefore, it only makes sense that those most perplexed by the latest release are users who use the site religiously.  They don't understand the application of the News Feed or Suggestions since it really isn't targeted for them.

Eventually, I firmly believe that the Facebook community as a whole will come to understand, accept, and embrace these changes.  It may take some time, but it will happen.

Tweaks that could be made
I understand that with any roll-out, what we see isn't the final edition. Obviously, this is the case with Facebook. There are always going to be bugs (hopefully small) and some tweaks that should be made to improve user experience.

So many of the complaints people had about bugs (Live Feed not being live) will likely be addressed soon, if they haven't been already.

I'd also like to see the News Feed renamed to be "Highlights." That's essentially what it is anyway, which makes the feature much more intuitive. It's currently confusing that the "News Feed" section contains a News Feed and Live Feed. Improvements can be made there.

Once Facebook gives their users time to either accept or further reject the changes, they should also allow people the opportunity to hide certain "friending" and "fanning" info from their Live Feed. I understand giving it time, though, because people are prone to make quick, emotional decisions otherwise without understanding the value.

Finally, Facebook needs to provide more information within the site when changes are made. Highlight what was done. Define what things are. Give the user the ability to then hide these explanations. I've seen them do this before, so not sure why they went away from it.

What do you think? Do you like the recent changes? What other tweaks do you think should be made?


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