The social network on Thursday launched a redesign of its News Feed, the list of posts from friends and followed entities that forms the spine of Facebook pages. Chris Cox, VP of product at Facebook, described the change as "very mobile-inspired Web design."
Many observers, including some at Google, believe the inspiration came from Google+.
"Proud to see +Mark Zuckerberg promote G+," quipped Urs Hölzle, SVP of technical infrastructure at Google, in a Google+ post. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!"
It's a bit of a cheap shot, given that every tech company has copied competitors and given that there are only so many effective ways to present pictures in a layout that's consistent across Web pages and mobile devices. But the similarities are hard to deny. There's some Twitter in there too. If only Google and Facebook would merge so we could focus all our privacy fears in one place.
[ Where did they find the talent to make all of those changes? Read IT Talent Shortage, Or Purple Squirrel Hunt?. ]
Facebook's new look should please users because it provides more control. The company has introduced an All Friends feed that allow users to view all posts from friends in chronological order. Similarly, a Following feed shows all posts from followed individuals and Pages.
Some Facebook users may not realize that the Facebook News Feed does not contain all posts from friends. Instead, it contains a subset of posts that Facebook's EdgeRank algorithm deems to be relevant. And this system, for better or worse, isn't changing.
"This change is a visual redesign of News Feed only and does not change how we surface the most interesting stories to people," Facebook explains on its advertiser-oriented Facebook Studio website.
The new look provides more screen real estate for images, which Facebook suggests is better for advertising. "We've seen that more visual stories in News Feed -- from both people and Pages -- increase user engagement," the company explains. "Now businesses have an even more visually rich way to showcase content and get people engaged."
But the redesign also offers user a way out of advertising -- for those not already blocking ads. The All Friends feed could be described as the No Ads feed, at least that's the way it looks at the moment. Unfortunately the Following feed isn't so pristine: It may include suggested content that isn't relevant or desired.
For example, I only follow a dozen Pages on Facebook. These include Pages for friends' projects and friends' companies, the company I work for, an obscure band, an online game and a company that makes game development tools. Based on this paltry list, Facebook calculated it should present a post from social humor website Cheezburger. Why? Well, Facebook says, "Cheezburger is similar to Pages you like." That's just not true. If there were a 'dislike' button, I'd have used it.
Facebook's algorithm is reaching for straws. I suspect this is because I don't bother following enough organizations or people for Facebook to make a relevant suggestion and because Facebook got paid to promote the Cheezburger post.
Overall, the new design is more aesthetically pleasing, but I am not sold on Facebook's motives. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook wanted to "give everyone in the world the best personalized newspaper we can." It seems more like chum to draw marketers: scraps of content obtained from donations, run through the algorithmic meat grinder and tossed in the stream to feed a voracious audience.
Facebook is an advertising platform rather than an editorial company, so I don't see it adding any value in terms of editorial judgement. EdgeRank's culling of boring posts and Promoted Posts -- ads by any other name -- do not represent editorial judgement. Friends' posts are also not an adequate substitute for an editor.
As far as personalized newspapers go, I prefer NetVibes: It allows me to gather RSS feeds for news sources I trust in a single place, without ads. Facebook's challenge is to come up with a service that's valuable enough to pay for, not as a marketer but as a user.