November 17, 2009

How Facebook's News Feed Failed Me (And My Family)

As more and more people are turning to social networks to share their information, practically all of us are connecting to an ever-increasing number of people, and for the most part, we are updating more frequently, and sharing content from different sources in multiple places. The resulting increase in velocity, often termed noise, has led to practically all tools to try and assist us to find the "most relevant" data, or the "best" information, based either on activity from others in our social graph, or through our own past activity. Sometimes, this works very well, helping to make signal out of the noise. And on other occasions, it can dramatically miss the stated goal, and actually make things worse. This week, Facebook's latest enhancements appear to have had a serious negative impact on me (and my family).

As you likely already know, Facebook has been working on a slew of changes to its "news feed", the main column on the site that alerts you to friends' activity. The social network implemented "real time" updates to show you when new entries were posted, and very recently divided the feed into two parts - a "Live Feed" for all updates as they occurred, with the newest on top, and a "News Feed", ostensibly from those who I engage with most often, or for "hot" content - presumably measured through interaction. This is a similar approach taken to FriendFeed's "best of day", PostRank's work on RSS feeds, and Google Reader's new feature, "Magic".

This weekend was a busy one for me, one where I was less connected to the computer than usual. As a result, I checked in to Facebook only a handful of times. Glancing at the News Feed on Saturday, nothing particularly stood out. The same held true on Sunday. I was greeted with updates from friends like Jason Goldberg and Chris Saad, both solid tech entrepreneurs. I also saw notes from Robert Scoble and a handful of connections that originated on FriendFeed. Still, nothing amazing to report.

But after 11 p.m. Sunday night, I saw a friend from high school make a mundane update, saying he had a good weekend, one he would cap off with a round of "Anno 1404." Turns out that's a city-building game, like Sim City. No big deal. I clicked through to his wall to see if he hinted at the good weekend. At the top of his wall, I saw something truly interesting. A simple update, his wall said, "Don likes Malinda Gray's photo." Malinda is my 23-year-old sister. Why would he be looking at her photos? And what photo?

I clicked through, and to my surprise found out that my other sister, 28, had given birth to a new baby boy, her first, making me an uncle. Wow! After more investigation, I found that my sister, as well as my mom, and also the mother of the child, had made posts on Facebook throughout the day Sunday on the progress of the labor, and how things had gone. I also found out that my sister had actually gone into labor and started that process around noon on Saturday - the previous day, and that I had absolutely no clue.

How could I have missed it, considering they had been updating Facebook regularly, and amassing a good share of comments and likes with each update? Well, apparently, Facebook didn't figure out that this update stream was relevant to me. It didn't realize and start sending - with alarm bells - that Louis's sister was having a baby. It didn't realize that photos from my sister, both of them, of a new baby, and the hospital just prior, were more important, than a random "OH" via Twitter from Chris.

Facebook's filter failed me. While, yes, I could have clicked on each of my individual family members' profiles at any point over the prior 24 hours, or yes, I should maybe make a Family-only list and make sure to visit it regularly, I've so far trusted the network to do a good job at gauging relevancy. Yes, it's true that I interact more often with Jason Goldberg or Johnny Worthington on Facebook than I do with my own family, but in this case, the News Feed hid the only truly relevant thing that was going on this weekend, and we missed it.

I explain further in the below video: