Why Facebook’s News Feed is Giving Users More Control

Facebook is giving users a little more control over their News Feed, the main feed of photos, news, and updates that’s curated by a famously opaque algorithm that the social network constantly adjusts and conducts experiments on.

A Newsroom post by Greg Marra, a product manager at Facebook, explains that the social network is now equipped with “more ways for you to control and give feedback on your News Feed.” The new settings give users more control over which stories the News Feed algorithm displays, and aims to make the algorithm that controls the feed a little less frustrating — if not more transparent.

Before Friday, when the changes launched, users could click on the gray “v,” known as a chevron, in the upper right corner of a post to see options like “unfollow” or “I don’t want to see this.” The update adds more options, including “see less.” They can give feedback — limited to negative feedback, at least for the moment — on the stories displayed in the News Feed by clicking the chevron to hide it. Hiding a story will also display the option to see less from that person, page, or group.

Choosing the option to see less gives a further option to completely unfollow the account, so that none of that person, page, or group’s stories are displayed in the News Feed. (But even when that option is selected, the user remains friends with the person, or still follows the page, or remains a member of the group).

Facebook also launched a new News Feed settings page, where users can see lists of the top people, pages, and groups whom they’ve seen updates from in the News Feed over the past week. From there, they can also quickly unfollow and re-follow people, pages, and groups. According to a page on Facebook’s Help Center, users can also use the settings to see stories in the order they were posted. An entry on that feature, while not new, joins the newest settings and Facebook’s tools for organizing friends in a help section called, “Controlling What You See in News Feed.”

To view the new settings, Facebook users should click the dropdown arrow in the top right corner of any Facebook page, select “News Feed Settings,” and click “People,” “Pages,” or “Groups” to sort by category, or click “Alphabetical Order” to see a list in alphabetical order.  The settings are already available in Facebook’s desktop version, and the Newsroom post written by Marra reports that the same settings and features will be made available on the social network’s mobile versions “in the coming weeks.”

Users have long complained of the News Feed algorithm’s confounding choices. From the News Feed’s beginnings in 2006, users complained that Facebook was invading their privacy by sharing their activity with their “friends.” But as they grew used to the feature, and the amount of content that it needed to choose from grew, they grew more concerned with its curation of updates, photos, videos, and news items.

As Vindu Goel recounts in the New York Times, it can surface the most mundane updates from the most casual acquaintances, while ignoring major stories from close friends or relatives. It can do a poor job of displaying coverage of the news that matters to users, even those who, like Goel, “have scores of journalist friends and follow a dozen news sites.”

Adam Mosseri, a director of product who began overseeing the team developing the News  Feed in August, told Goel that “If we’re showing you something you’re not interested in, we’re not doing our job the way we should be doing it.” The new tools enable users to tell Facebook which stories they don’t want to see, and Mosseri says that the goal is to strike a balance between giving power users granular control over their News Feeds and giving casual users simple ways to make their News Feeds more responsive.

This and other improvements that the social network has made to the News Feed through the past year, are aimed at increasing the amount of time that users spend with Facebook, thereby increasing the number of ads that they’re shown — ads on which the company relies for most of its revenue. In a recent town hall discussion with users, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said, “With News Feed, our goal is to build the perfect, personalized newspaper for everyone in the world.” The company is prioritizing that pursuit, and Mosseri noted, “We have to figure out how to simplify this.”

Goel notes that the News Feed algorithm takes into account hundreds of different factors — from whether a user clicks on videos or ignores news articles — when choosing what content to display. As Facebook’s Help Center explains, the algorithm chooses stories based on a user’s connections and activity. He notes that “The number of comments and likes a post receives and what kind of story it is (ex: photo, video, status update) can also make it more likely to appear in your News Feed.”

By enabling users to customize the News Feed to their liking, Facebook could make the central feed of photos, news stories, updates, and videos more engaging, thereby compelling users to spend more time with it. This year, Facebook has made several noticeable changes to the News Feed algorithm — in addition to the constant, incremental adjustments that take place every few months — such as its choice to identify and weed out clickbait from the content displayed to users.

As Time reported in August, Facebook evaluates News Feed content on two criteria: the amount of time that users spend reading it, and their engagement with a story. If users click on a story and immediately return to Facebook, that signals that the story didn’t deliver what the headline promised. And if users click on a story without commenting, liking, or sharing, that implies that the story is likely “low on substance.” Using those criteria, the News Feed placed a new priority on the quality of the content displayed to users.

The News Feed changes this summer also saw the site beginning to prioritize articles shared as links, rather than articles shared as a photo, with the URL placed in the caption. Sharing an article as a photo enables users and publishers to drive clicks with less information, and with potentially misleading photos that don’t necessarily appear in the actual content.

In his recent town hall meeting with users, Zuckerberg explained that the News Feed needs to choose from an average of 1,500 new items to display to a user when he or she logs in, according to the New York Times. The algorithm is designed to predict which of those items will be the most interesting to users, and surface them.

Giving users more granular control — perhaps letting them choose what types of updates they’d like to see from specific people or pages — would help the algorithm more reliably choose the most interesting stories. In looking for a simpler way to give users what they want in the News Feed — in order to get them to spend more time with it — it’s possible that Facebook will fashion the News Feed to more closely follow the precedent set by its advertising, which encourages users to specify their interests and preferences to deliver more relevant ads.

Mosseri tells Goel that in the future evolution of the News Feed, Facebook could more directly ask users what they want. “Maybe we need to have more personalized models. Maybe we need to ask people what topics they’re interested in.”

Mosseri told The Wall Street Journal’s Reed Albergotti that users should expect to see more options for customization in the future. He says that Facebook is considering adding the ability for users to regulate posts on specific topics — like “science” or “breaking news” — or to show which posts came from specific types of friends, like “close friends,” or even members of a specific group.

Continuing to improve users’ experiences with the News Feed, the social network’s most-used feature, is a critical endeavor for Facebook. Sometimes, improvements come in the form of minor tweaks to the algorithm, which go largely unnoticed by users and publishers. Other times, more drastic changes are necessary, such as the shift of de-prioritized content that falls in the clickbait category. On still other occasions, Facebook needs to change the way users interact with the News Feed — a feature that Facebook needs to make as addictive, engaging, and simultaneously lucrative as possible.

But even the complex curation of the algorithm that controls which posts users see when they load the News Feed isn’t sophisticated enough to keep up with Facebook’s billion-plus users. The first News Feed settings will hopefully be just the beginning of Facebook’s moves to give users a little more control over what they see each time they log in to the social network’s central destination.

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