In Facebook’s Redesigned News Feed, An Algorithm’s Band-Aid

Don’t like what Facebook is choosing to show you in your News Feed? A video-, picture-, and music-packed redesign lets you sift through it all yourself.

Facebook is letting users sort the “news” in its News Feed. A redesign lets them organize their primary scroll of information by photos, games, music, and other categories.


“What we’re trying to do is give everyone in the world the best personalized newspaper we can,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained during a press event at the company’s headquarters on Thursday.

A new “Switcher” feature flips through the social network’s metaphorical newspaper sections. In the process, it could help ease criticism about how the site decides which stories own the valuable real estate on its homepage.

Since becoming a public company last year, Facebook has been dancing between pressure to ramp up advertising and the risk of alienating users in the process. Its mobile revenue has zoomed from bare existence to about 23% of its advertising business in less than a year. But some have worried new advertising features such as sponsored stories and promoted posts are making the network less valuable for those who don’t pay to play. In response to recent criticism accusing the social network of suppressing normal posts in order to make way for their paid counterparts, Facebook insisted that its algorithms weren’t discriminating against good old unpaid activity.

But a better response to the conflict is a feature that lets users choose for themselves what kind of updates they see in the News Feed. Facebook might not mention it, but the Switcher is a beautiful distraction for critics of EdgeRank, Facebook’s secret and proprietary algorithm that decides what items show up in your News Feed.

About to complain that Facebook’s constant algorithm tweaks mean you’re missing updates from friends? There’s a “recent” option that includes everything. Feeling overrun by brand pages you really just “Liked” for the coupons? A “friends” option in the switcher removes updates from pages and people who a user follows in order “to make sure I’m not missing anything my friends are doing on Facebook,” Chris Struhar, the tech lead of Facebook’s News Feed, said during Thursday’s presentation. Meanwhile, a “following” feed provides updates from pages and people who you follow. In that mode, Struhar explains, “We’re putting it in chronological order to make sure content publishers know that their fans can see every single post that they make.”

When everyone has their own corner of the playground, it’s hard to argue about who’s controlling the main sandbox. Of course, Facebook didn’t mention how it will integrate ads or sponsored stories within its new News Feed layout. A richer, mobile-inspired design that takes up more space Facebook’s homepage is a fertile ground for advertising revenue. Sticking paid brand updates in the “friends” feed, however, would effectively defeat its purpose.


Intentional or not, the Switcher is an answer to critics of EdgeRank. The redesign gives users the choice to see everything and sort through it themselves, a behavior that becomes increasingly unlikely as the number of people and brands you follow grows–Facebook knows this. That’s part of why they have EdgeRank. So as beautiful as it is, the kitchen sink approach to a redesign doesn’t solve an EdgeRank problem.

Not that anyone has admitted EdgeRank has problems, exactly. (The New York Times reports that Thursday’s redesign won’t impact the algorithm itself.) And as far as anyone knows Facebook could even be working to fix it. So far the closest anyone at Facebook has come to admitting a problem with its algorithm was newsfeed product manager Avichal Garg, who told The New York Times‘s Nick Bilton that the company clearly needed to improve its algorithm. “It’s really not in our best interest to take out the most engaging stuff and replace it with ads,” he told Bilton. “We want to make sure we show the right content to the right people.”

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.