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The Newsfeed changes - too little and about time: but the Newspaper is the right metaphor


[True for all posts on my blog, but bears repeating for this one - opinions are my opinion and aren't informed by anyone at Google or otherwise that actually works on this stuff :-)]


About 10 months ago, I started a blog post titled "How we f-ed it up: the Stream/Newsfeed" (screenshot below) so:

I jotted down a few bullet points, but realized in a couple of minutes that I was railing too much (in some cases at people that I knew) and not making any points that I wanted to read. So I gave up - there were other things to rail about.

I started the post again two months later after a discussion with co-workers that looked at me funny when I told them that streams/feeds were a bad idea for what they were working on, since they were going to die one day anyway.

I liked the title better this time (screenshot below).


But then I never finished the post.  :-/

But the Facebook feed announcement made me revisit the draft. If you actually see this, I finished the post this time. :-D

I think the feed as a format to share information is now horribly broken - it wasn't always broken, and isn't broken for many uses today (e.g. it works well enough for Twitter), but it is incredibly sub-optimal for the majority of the use cases that its used for - particularly updates on social networks and content consumption services.

Think about what the first thing that any social service (or any content service) wants to do for their users

  • to start with it needs to quickly tell you everything that you care about 
  • or might want to know more about and explore further
  • its needs to do this knowing what you saw last (so that you don't consume the same stuff again)
  • but in a way that you can easily find something that you just saw and wanted to see again.
The Newspaper is the right analogy, at least its a better analogy. I'm really glad that's what Zuckerberg explicitly called out as the direction and inspiration of the FB Newsfeed re-design.  

The Newspaper is the best mental model, and presentation format, we have today for something that does this in the real world, but challenge is that its really hard to do in a way that's 
  • automated (i.e. code, not editors) 
  • personalized (what every person cares about as news - i.e. which friends' baby pictures do you pick, is it a big deal that a friend of a friend got engaged to a friend of another friend? did your cousin go on another vacation? - is very different from the algorithmic challenges of putting together just world news) 
  • structured (what are the right sections? - are they really photos and music? should they be family, work, friends? or something else?)
  • and tries to sieve through and rank the incredible amount of data we have today (e.g. every song every one you know has ever listened to.) 
  • understands your state and moods (what did you see last? more importantly, what are you in the mood to see now?)
Think about how we try to present this today on any social network that you may use. We don't typically try to organize it like so:



Instead we show it to you like so:




Oh, we try to cut up the tape and stick the stuff we think is more important on the top, but that's about it. Yup. As an industry, haven't evolved to the Newspaper yet. We're still just optimizing the ticker tape.

I'm still on the waitlist for the new Facebook newsfeed (hint: all the people I know there. :-).. also while you're at it still waiting for Graph Search too :-(.), 

From the descriptions it still looks like sections-on-a-ticker tape rather than a newspaper. To give them credit though, they're still innovating and sections are a step in the right direction. My guess is that they are headed exactly in the Newspaper direction, but aren't able to create the right sections just yet:
  • Getting the right presentation format is hard: The consensus is that a "Pintrest-like UI" makes sense and there's tons of news-like services including Rebelmouse that seem to be right directionally, but its not clear that format will work as is for social information.
  • All the right data isn't there yet: as much as we like to focus on the data overload problem, we also have a data incompleteness problem - e.g. yes there's a lot of baby pictures on Facebook and pictures of flowers on Google+, but I still miss the ones I should care about most.
  • All the data there is, is still hard to convert into interesting news:  i.e. we still have that data overload problem.
There are too many smart people thinking about this, and working on this for things not to get better fast, but its been more than six years since the Newsfeed was released. 

We should've done better. We probably, hopefully will. 

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