Do you have a moment to talk about news feeds?


Over the past few days I’ve been playing a bit with Facebook’s news sections. Facebook, always famous for doing UX testing, seems to have stepped up their testing of late. Every time I go in there’s something new to test/look at. I wonder if they are making decisions on testing too quickly – just because I didn’t tap on the new post about Moments doesn’t mean I don’t want it. I just jumped in to Like a comment that someone made on my last Insta-share.

<insert emoji here…not sure which one…I don’t speak emoji>

Facebook has now introduced sections to its main UI, and keyword tagging on news posts. One thing I do like is that a post can have multiple tags, something often missed by other news aggregators.

What I don’t really like is that…well, I don’t WANT to go to Facebook for my news topics, and it doesn’t really feel cohesive in any real UX manner. It’s a mash up of posts from my Friends, to posts from brands I follow to lots of suggested posts. Some of the sections also ask me to refine my section by selecting sub-topics from the main topic (eg Animation, under TV and Film).

No. Bad Facebook.

Despite the wealth of data that is indicating that messaging apps are a second home screen for users, and that increasing percentages of users are getting news through their social media, and even despite my own tendency to find news through Facebook, it feels like a very awkward transition of branding from social media to news aggregator.

Let’s face it – Facebook Instant Articles are the fucking bomb. The little lightning bolt in my FB feed indicates that I don’t need to wait interminable seconds for a site to load ads I’m going to ignore, video I won’t play, and bloated code in templated that slow down my experience.

But having that speedy experience is focussed on being used by brands and news outlets that I’m already following. This is very different from being an actual news aggregator. And a very different experience from having my Friends mixed in with brands I don’t even want to follow. I’m staring at it now, and in the Science and Tech topic 2 out of the last 10-15 posts are from brands I actually followed. This isn’t useful. It’s news aggregation at its worst, because it exposes Facebook’s UI for what it isn’t – a refined presentation of News Headlines.Facebook is social media. It shows names of people and brands I know, their feelings, their likes, a snippet of conversation, a photo. It isn’t suited to headlines and snappy clickbait. In my News Feed I can feel like my ‘Like’ of The Guardian, is really a Like. It’s in my Feed because I deliberately chose it or I was marketed to as a segment, not because some Facebook algorithm is putting it next to Makeuseof,, Physics-Astronomy and a dozen other brands I’m not interested in following. In the Facebook UI, each post is 3/4 of my iPhone screen. It’s a lot of work to ignore a brand and story I don’t like.

That’s not how news aggregators should work. It needs to be easy to move through the list.

I’m not sure if Facebook should be looking to go down this path.

Especially when Facebook recently went through the allegations of bias in their Trending Topics feed (something I’ll get to in a sec…). Indeed, I was recently hit by a survey on Facebook that asked the interesting question (slightly paraphrased) – “is the work that Facebook does good for the world?”. WOW, how can you even answer THAT?

There’s a few things to deal with here. As usual, I’m seeing these as interrelated as part of a large strategic shift, this time in the content publishing industry.

  1. Is Facebook a news aggregator. I’m a news junkie. I flit between a selection of apps and sites to get my news headlines every day – from Microsoft Newspro to the newish Quartz app to Apple News and Flipboard, Google Play Newsstand, and others. Facebook doesn’t fit in these, especially with the fairly clunky section menu and bulky post UI that forces the long swipe. The current approach feels highly bulky but not personalised. Even Flipboard, good old Flipboard, feels more curated and fast moving with its ‘flip’. Quartz’s news app uses a cute messaging like method to deliver its headlines, which work in Quartz’s context because they can add their editorial spin to it. Were Facebook to do this, it would lend a very strong social experience to the addition of those sections in my feed, and would merge more seamlessly into the rest of the Facebook experience. Facebook doesn’t seem willing (able?) to do that.
  2. YET. The allegations that Facebook was hiding conservative news from its Trending Topics feed was interesting but not ground breaking. I for one had always assumed that Facebook was lending some bias to those Topics. Facebook has an agenda of social activism and a centre-left lean (rebellious in a conservative and tempered manner). Then Mark Zuckerberg met with Congressmen to reaffirm the official stance that Facebook does not suppress political content and supports free speech. I’m not a huge fan of the Zuck, or Facebook to be honest (more in not having a big opinion of them one way or another), but part of me was hoping he would flip the bird and ride into the sunset on an AI driven pile of money, just out of pure entertainment value.
  3. Which leads to point 3. Is Facebook good for the world. What a doozy of a question, and the complete phrasing really emphasises to me a lot of the weaknesses of Facebook above. Facebook has the air of a slight naivete, the same kind that pervades a lot of Silicon Valley and startups who hold idealism above the bitter realities. It’s always slightly terrifying thinking that some of these organisitions barrel forth with that much money but no devil’s advocacy to temper it. “good for the world” is a concept of supreme arrogance, and ignorance. I chose to abstain from a positive/negative answer, and in the comments box highlighted that it was a bad question that lacked definition or clarity. Facebook has enabled good. It has also enabled bad. “good for the world” isn’t a tally. The questioning got odd because it tried the same question, in a different phrasing. Then asked if I was aware of the various programs that Facebook runs for the good of society (eg anti bullying). It was obvious that Facebook desperately wants to be seen as good for the world.

Facebook – if you’re listening (and you probably are, on line 2, after PRISM, but ahead of ASIO/ASD) here’s a hint: you’re not ‘good for the world’. Noone it ‘good for the world’ as that assumes everyone has the same ambitions of goodness. You’re not going to win that.

Temper the idealism with cold reality. Find an opinion. Take it, do good for that, and the hell with the rest.

We’re increasingly seeing tech companies mature into organisations with an opinion. Facebook could do the same.

And when they do, I think we could see this attempt at news mature into something much more interesting.

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