Don’t be fooled by Facebook’s latest newsfeed update: It’s still the one in control

In the never-ending quest to build a newsfeed beloved by both users and advertisers, Facebook introduced more product control features on Friday. Namely, it added nuances to its muting button. Now when you tell Facebook you don’t want to see a post, you’re prompted to unfollow the writer or see less posts from them. Facebook’s product management director Adam Mosseri told Re/Code “We’re trying to encourage people to use the [unfollow] option more.”

Here’s the problem: It makes fine-tuning your newsfeed even more of a hassle. It takes effort to go weeding through the dredges of your news feed, making decisions about which individual posts were subpar. The cognitive burden of it all is a deterrence. How many people used that “I don’t want to see a post” button in the first place? I asked Facebook, but the company didn’t respond.

In the second update, Facebook will give you lists of noisy pages and people, recommendations on who you might want to unfollow. It also has grouped everyone you’ve unfollowed into one list, so you can choose to refollow people easily.

The “I don’t want to see this post” and the “unfollow” button are some of the only newsfeed control options Facebook gives users. Today’s update doesn’t change that at all.

Screenshots from Facebook's new newsfeed control features

Screenshots from Facebook’s new newsfeed control features

But the most frustrating part of a newsfeed isn’t “noisy” friends or pages. The original unfollow button – which has existed for a year now — made those easy enough to tone down.

Instead, the truly frustrating newsfeed problem is the type of content you’re presented with. Some people may love seeing status updates from their whole scope of friends – I certainly do – whereas others may prefer seeing news articles. The real power would come from determining what type of content you see more.

But if Facebook gave users the ability to manipulate that, it would relinquish power over their engagement. Just because you like seeing posts from friends doesn’t mean they’ll keep you on the site as long as news articles would.

User engagement is key to Facebook’s business priorities, because that’s what advertisers care the most about, so Facebook won’t give that up any time soon. Instead, it will give the illusion of control with minor newsfeed tailoring features like those announced today.

When I reached out for more information on why Facebook chose to build out these features as opposed to other newsfeed control functions, a spokesperson said, “We have offered the option for people to unfollow or hide posts for a while and have got positive feedback about these features.” In an interview with The New York Times, Mosseri was a little more forthcoming, explaining that Facebook grapples with giving the user too much control and overwhelming them, versus making the feed work well without much user input. Mosseri admitted the company may need more personalized models.

Here’s a 2009 Facebook newsfeed control system, via TechCrunch, complete with explicit levers instead of mysterious algorithms. It’s ideal — it empowers the user to make their own choices, but quickly and without complication.

Alas, Facebook abolished it – for reasons the company declined to tell me. After this story published, however, the company responded with a longish statement. Here’s the gist of it, “[We] will continue to work on new features to give people more control over what they see in their News Feed.” Here’s to hoping.


This story has been updated with comment from Facebook.

Facebook's 2009 newsfeed controls, via TechCrunch

Facebook’s 2009 newsfeed controls, via TechCrunch