Facebook’s evolving News Feed

In my first brush with Facebook’s redesigned News Feed, which the company showed off at a news conference Thursday, the photos really jumped out. There was a gorgeous, almost over-sized image of a baseball diamond under a blue sky, posted by a friend who’s at spring training in Arizona (and who also happens to be a professional photographer).

The next post that hit me was a somber collection of photos from another friend who attended the memorial service for two Santa Cruz police officers at HP Pavilion. Two friends had posted links to an article in the Mercury News. And then there was the close-up photo of a deliciously greasy-looking “butter burger” from a colleague’s visit to a popular mid-western fast food chain.

Clearly, Facebook’s redesign of its News Feed is aimed at all those people who use the social network to post their own photos and links to other sites – while also hoping to win over people who have been turning to OTHER social networks (like Twitter, Pinterest, Flipboard and Instagram) to post their photos and links to other sites.

Inevitably, some people won’t like the new design, if only because it’s not what they’re used to. For them, the old saw about “if you don’t like the weather, it’s bound to change in a few hours” might apply.

Facebook has changed its News Feed before, after all: It didn’t even have photos when it first launched, back in the dim past. Later, it offered the option of viewing a chronological stream of friends’ posts, before shifting to emphasize its own software algorithm, which tries to present the posts and updates that it thinks are the most relevant to you – based on your past likes and interactions on Facebook. Now it’s offering the chronological option again, along with specialized streams for music and pictures, in addition to the main News Feed that still puts priority on what Facebook thinks you want to see.

Based on past comments from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, most analysts believe the new emphasis on photos is partly an attempt to keep users engaged and interested, and partly an effort to pave the way for new kinds of advertising – which will also feature photos and visual elements aimed at catching users’ attention.

Another reason for the redesign is that people’s use of Facebook has changed. “There’s a lot more content and types of content in the system,” said Facebook’s Chris Cox. Users have more friends – often several hundred – on the network, and a lot more businesses have persuaded people to “like” their pages and get their own updates.

Cox said the new specialized feeds are intended to let people burrow into different “cuts” of all that information. One option lets you see all of your friends’ posts. Another shows you all the updates from businesses and organizations that you’ve “liked.”

In presenting the changes, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook managers repeatedly used the analogy of a “personalized newspaper,” where the main News Feed is like a front page that delivers a variety of items that Facebook thinks users want to see.

More than one reporter at the Facebook launch event noted the irony of a giant Internet company comparing itself to a print medium that has been struggling financially in recent years. But in Zuckerberg’s analogy, the new optional News Feeds are like sections of the newspaper that focus on specific topics – business news, sports or entertainment – although Facebook doesn’t have specific feeds for business news or sports, at least not yet.

While those alternate feeds will show you every post in chronological order, Zuckerberg also told reporters that this could change again in the future. As more people load more material into those streams, they may become crowded and Facebook may decide to use its software to pick and choose what’s most relevant, he said.

Zuckerberg said he views Facebook as a “medium” where people can contribute a variety of content, adding that at Facebook, “we should be the editor” to help curate that material. He quickly noted that one difference between Facebook and a newspaper is that Facebook doesn’t create its own content, the way a newspaper does. “I don’t really foresee us producing our own content,” he said.

I relayed that quote to tech analyst Brian Blau of the Gartner research firm and he smiled. That could change too, at some point, he said.

(Bay Area News Group photo by John Green) 




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