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Facebook Patents News Feed, Social Net Confusion Ensues

You know that stream of friendship dates, comments, photos, and whatnot that constitutes your Facebook “news” feed? Facebook’s apparently been granted a patent on the idea. But isn’t it something that’s been done before?

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You know that stream of friendship dates, comments, photos, and whatnot that constitutes your Facebook “news” feed? Facebook’s apparently been granted a patent on the idea. But isn’t it something that’s been done before?

The patent application dates back to 2006, just before Facebook revealed its news feed/service, and it’s simply a patent on the the notion of “displaying a news feed in a social network environment.” The introductory text, credited to Mark Zuckerberg runs thus:

A method for displaying a news feed in a social network environment is described. The method includes generating news items regarding activities associated with a user of a social network environment and attaching an informational link associated with at least one of the activities, to at least one of the news items, as well as limiting access to the news items to a predetermined set of viewers and assigning an order to the news items. The method further may further include displaying the news items in the assigned order to at least one viewing user of the predetermined set of viewers and dynamically limiting the number of news items displayed.

Turning that back into non-Patentese English reveals that Facebook’s patent covers a dynamic updating list of various activities that a user’s friends are doing on Facebook, including hyperlinks to those activities. The list is ranked with an algorithm, and is subject to user controls and preset limitations. In other words, it’s the part of your news feed that includes data like “Bert has just befriended Ernie” or “Sarah has just uploaded a photo.”

This text has immediately sparked a firey online debate because the idea of a news feed of friend’s activities in a social network isn’t Facebook’s–other examples have definitely existed before. Yet the patent’s real gem is that dynamic algorithm, so there’s a question around whether Facebook genuinely invented this way of filtering a news feed. The matter is further complicated by the fact that Facebook has re-jigged and reinvented how its own news feed system works several times since 2006.

But the really thorny issue is whether or not the user “activities” mentioned in the patent text includes status updates. Because these small life-casting bursts of text are the lifeblood of a thousand other social network-alike systems of all sorts, spread around the Net and around the globe. Would it apply to Twitter? After all, the simplest of Tweets doesn’t contain an interactive link, and the feed just rolls linearly in time. But what about Tweets with hyperlinks in? Is Google’s new Buzz, with its news feed full of data-rich links and content, all dosed with a hefty chunk of Google’s algorithmic skills, the service most at threat from the patent? And, more scarily, will Facebook be pursuing these competitors for license fees? Would you, as a netizen, feel comfortable with the idea the Facebook (with its history of carefree disregard for user privacy) “owning” the IP on status updates?

With the web of complex questions this patent raises it is clear that the only true winners (in any case where Facebook tries to enforce the patent) will be the lawyers.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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