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Facebook serves many useful functions. It helps you set up events, send messages to friends and family, and even organize groups. These are all side benefits, though. The main feature—the real thing Facebook wants to sell you—is the News Feed. Too bad it’s so broken that it’s almost useless.
Before I get into why the News Feed is so fundamentally flawed, it’s worth looking into what Facebook says it should be. According to the company’s help page on the subject, Facebook defines the News Feed like this:
News Feed is the constantly updating list of stories in the middle of your home page. News Feed includes status updates, photos, videos, links, app activity and likes from people, Pages and groups that you follow on Facebook.
In a video on the same page, VP of Product Management Adam Mosseri explains that the News Feed is like ordering for your significant other at a restaurant before they get there. You know what’s on the menu, and you know what kind of foods they like, so you make an informed decision and pick something for them. In the same way, Facebook tries to take inventory of all the possible stories you could see in a given day, predict which ones you’ll like the most, and then show them to you.
The problem happens in that middle step. Put simply, Facebook is terrible at guessing what posts you care about. It uses details like which posts are getting a lot of likes and comments, or how recent a post is, to determine whether you want to see it. Whereas you might care more about your best friend’s post from three days ago with no comments way more than you care about your coworker’s post from five hours ago with thirty comments. Facebook is fundamentally incapable of making this decision.
Take a moment and think about the most important people in your life. Who are they? Your close friends, your family, the people you see every week. Now, are they the people you see in your News Feed? In my experience they are not. I put this question to my own friends on Facebook and received largely similar responses. Without major modification to their feeds, people generally got some mixture of the following:
You’ll notice that none of these criteria really describe people you would care about. Instead, it describes what Facebook wants to show you so that you’ll keep using the feed. It’s unclear if Facebook prioritizes things like the people you message frequently, the people you’ve known the longest, or the people you spend the most time with as highly as the above criteria. What is clear is that Facebook needs to fill your infinite scrolling, constant updating feed with something. Even if you care more about your best friend’s one post per day than you do about that person you met at a party once who shares politically charged memes all day, but that’s not gonna fill the feed. Facebook would rather have you engaged and arguing with strangers than catching up with your friends for ten minutes and calling it a day.
“If you don’t like what Facebook is showing you, change it!” you might rightly reply. We would even agree with you. The problem is that, with rare exception, Facebook doesn’t give you tools to choose what you do want to see. Just what you don’t. In no particular order, here are some of the tools that Facebook gives you to customize your feed:
The above tools let you tell Facebook what you don’t like, but there’s only one tool you can use to say what you do like: See First. If you go to a person’s profile and hover over Following, you can choose to see that person’s posts at the top of your News Feed. This seems great at first glance, but in practice it’s more like a suggestion than a command. Facebook only shows me some of the posts from the people I want to see first, which has led to more than one awkward conversation later. “Did you see the artwork I posted?” Well no, sorry. Despite explicitly telling Facebook I want to see your stuff, it just didn’t appease the algorithm.
Of course there’s one other positive feedback metric Facebook uses: your engagement. If you like or comment on a post, then Facebook assumes you want more of that, but again, this fails to understand how we actually use Facebook. Even if a random acquaintance posts more, I care more about the close friends that I spend time with. I want to make sure I see what they say, even if they only speak up every once in a while.
To adapt Facebook’s own analogy based on a conversation with a friend (thanks Andrew), imagine you were ordering at a restaurant for your spouse and the waiter asked if they had any allergies. You mentioned that your partner was allergic to peanuts, and the waiter says “Great, thanks!” then walks off. He brings you a randomly selected meal from the menu. You and your partner, already very hungry, decide to just eat the meal instead of fighting over it. It’s not quite what you wanted, but at least it’s food. As you leave, the waiter is satisfied that he picked such a good meal for you.
That’s how Facebook’s algorithm works. It doesn’t ask what you want, it barely cares when you tell it, and it thinks it’s done a good job because you interact with the content it chose to show you when you have little other choice. From Facebook’s perspective, this is still a win. Facebook doesn’t care why you keep scrolling or engage in the feed, as long as you see a new ad every five posts. From a user perspective, though, it starts to feel more like a chore to scroll through the feed than a genuinely useful way to keep up with family and friends.
If Facebook is so bad at showing us the stuff we really care about, why doesn’t Facebook try to do better? The answer is simple: You wouldn’t use a News Feed that was only full of stuff from the people you care about the most. And it’s really hard to run ads against an empty feed. According to Facebook’s stats from 2016, the average user spends 50 minutes using some combination of Facebook, WhatsApp, or Messenger each day. That doesn’t sound like a lot but spread that over, say, 25 two-minute sessions throughout the day and that’s a lot of content Facebook has to find for you.
Facebook’s never going to reach a point where they say “Well, that’s all your close friends have to say! Maybe you should go outside.” They’ll fill it with anything to keep you scrolling through the feed, but they’d prefer it be from people you know. Pages—and especially links shared from pages—aren’t as popular. Presumably, this is partially because it can lead you to spend time outside of Facebook. If you click a link on Facebook and then spend the next ten minutes browsing some other site, Facebook can’t show you any ads. But if you keep arguing with every dumb political post your uncle made, you’re probably gonna scroll past a few.
We can complain about it all we want—may I suggest a good rant on Facebook?—but at the end of the day, Facebook’s News Feed is designed to keep you idly scrolling past things you kind of like but can’t look away from, rather than keeping up with the people you care the most about and then moving on with your day. If you want to see the most important stuff to you, you’re better off subscribing to news sites in Feedly, following public profiles on Twitter, or just texting your friends and family and ask how they’re doing.
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