News Feed

This is obvious to some, but not obvious to others:

Everybody’s News Feed is different

You don’t see what I see, and I don’t see what you see.

This seems like it’s a no-brainer to understand, but after doing user interviews and learning how users can conceptualize systems differently than how designers and engineers intended, I’m sure that there’s a non-negligible percent of people out there who think what they see in their News Feed is the same as what other people see.

Before the News Feed, what did we have?

  • Websites with news
  • Blogs
  • News on TV
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines

Let’s say I’ve got two friends: William and Bob.

For all of these mediums I could ask my friend William to check out the same newspaper, and we could have a nice discussion knowing we read the same article about Haruki Murakami, and we’d go on in our jolly lives.

With the News Feed, I’ll see something posted by Bob and tell William about it, but if Bob and William aren’t friends, William may have no idea what I’m talking about. “What? How can this be? I saw it with my own eyes! Why can’t William see this too?”

OK, maybe there are a good number of people that understand you have to befriend someone on Facebook to be able to see their posts.

On top of this first conceptual leap is that the New Feed is built based on your own profile and how you use the site. Every time you tap like, every time you scroll and pause for a second to read something, and every time you click on a photo to see it full screen: these interactions are recorded and considered in what to show you in your News Feed. Even if William and I had the same friends, our feeds would still be different.

OK, maybe there are many people who understand that Facebook’s algorithms are based on your usage on the site.

Let’s say you read an article online about your favorite coffee french press. The author of the article may have had a little “Share on Facebook” button at the bottom of the post. Even if you didn’t click it, you were tracked reading the page, and sometime soon you may see a friend’s post about their favorite coffees take priority in your News Feed. William may never see that post and instead gets inundated with posts about men’s clothing.

At this level, I think most people do not understand nor know that nearly all of their online activity changes their own perception of reality through this intermediary of the News Feed.

You really do not see the same things, and the world each of us are seeing are through a narrow lens based on our actions online to influence what we see in our News Feed to keep us engaged and using Facebook.

Is this all proven to be true?

I can’t say with full certainty, but when I was still deep in the social media industry, knowing that I could use these techniques, it would have been hard not to try them out to see how effective they were. When I first heard of Facebook Beacon, I thought it was both genius and horrifying.

How I tamed my News Feed

I think around 2015, Barry Kwok shared with me a strategy he uses to manage his feed: unfollow everyone but stay friends with them.

I really liked this idea. By unfollowing friends in the feed, I’d be able to open up Facebook and still see notifications, user profiles, events, and messages. I could still participate, but I would not be drawn into a myopic world view that I had inadvertently built for myself based on my online habits.

After I’d hid everything in my feed, and it was completely empty, I noticed a few things:

  • No more ads. I’m sure Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t allow the entire feed to be ads: it likely requires a certain number of posts to intersperse ads between, and there’s some minimum ratio that it maintains.
  • Visiting friends’ profiles is fun. I had previously not visited people’s profiles much, but if I wanted to see what a friend’s been up to, I’d take the explicit step of visiting their profile and give them a few likes to feed the Facebook algorithm monsters some more.
  • No more hunting for interesting news. Scroll. Scroll. Scroll. Doom scroll.
  • No more politics, no more spam. Especially by 2016, I think most people were being bombarded with politics, especially as the US election drew closer. This onslaught of political infotainment never made it to me—at least not directly through Facebook.

Shared Experience

Don’t get me wrong, I still get sucked into things online. Reddit can still drain an hour of my life if I let it, but at least the experience of /r/Popular is closer to a shared experience with others rather than a wormhole that Facebook and YouTube can be.

All of these mediums have their place.

Just like having too much beer when out at a party, there can be diminishing returns if you’ve done too much. We may want to be connected, but we may not be connecting very skillfully by using the News Feed. We may want to have fun at the party, but having another beer may not be the right answer.

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