Nerd Fight: Has Facebook become too cluttered?

Nerd Fight!

[We don’t always agree with each other at TechHive. In fact, sometimes we can’t believe that our colleagues are thinking and saying such ridiculous things. In our Nerd Fight series, two TechHive editors square off on opposite sides of a burning tech topic.]

To use Facebook is to become accustomed to change. What else would you expect from a company whose operating philosophy is “move fast and break things?” But is change necessarily a good thing?

TechHive’s Philip Michaels would argue no. Facebook revamped its news feed in September 2011, combining Top Stories and Most Recent Stories into a unified feed. The social networking service now highlights the stories it thinks you’ll find the most interesting, and Michaels finds himself using Facebook less frequently. Links to news articles and Internet memes now overwhelm the personal status updates that made the social networking worthwhile in the first place—at least, as far as Michaels is concerned. Armando Rodriguez thinks the problem isn’t with Facebook, it’s with Michaels—or at least, it’s with how he’s interacting with the social network.

Who’s right and who’s barking up the wrong tree? Let’s have these two editors duke it out.

Rodriguez: I’m going to be in the minority here, but I actually like the new stuff Facebook has been rolling out over the last two years.

Michaels: I realize this might place me firmly in the All Change Is Bad crowd, but how on earth can you possibly say that? Facebook’s emphasis on sharing links, video, and other such nonsense has made the social networking service decidedly less useable for me. We used to joke about how cluttered Facebook feeds filled to the bursting point with Farmville updates. How is that any worse that a feed filled with the same half-dozen news stories that people insist on sharing?

Rodriguez: Ah, but here’s where we need to differentiate things. If you’re talking about the social reader stuff that’s been going on since OpenGraph was launched, then yeah. That stuff can understandably get annoying. But links that your friends share? Well those can still be as interesting as any status update. The idea is that they are your friends, wouldn’t you care if they found a cool link they wanted to share?

Michaels: In theory, yes. But not everyone shares judiciously. And I’m not sure what algorithm Facebook uses to determine what shows up in my feed, but it seems to give extra weight to people who overshare links. Yes, there are tools to manage that sort of thing—if you take enough time to dig around and find them—but that sounds like an awful lot of work for something that’s supposed to be a pleasant diversion.

Are links cluttering up Facebook or is all this sharing perfectly fine? The answer, like beauty, appears to be in the eye of the beholder.

Rodriguez: Facebook changed its algorithms and shows you things in your news feed that it thinks you will find relevant. If you are seeing one friend constantly appearing on your feed, chances are you are interacting with that particular friend more than others. If you’re mainly seeing links, then Facebook is saying that you’ve clicked through shared links in the past or liked a status that contained a link. It’s not perfect, but it works around 70 percent of the time.

Michaels: I am the 30 percent! Or the 99 percent. I’m not terribly up on the news.

Rodriguez: Like you said, though, you have the tools to adjust this. It’s just a matter of doing it. If it bugs you so much, that is.

Michaels: I’ve done some Facebook management—unsubscribed to some updates, indicated I want to see all updates from other users. It doesn’t seem to take for me.

More to the point, the stuff that I do care about—births, job changes, the sort of major life moments that I want to keep abreast of for friends—that’s all getting buried amid Rdio links and funny ecards and YouTube shares. It seems like when I first started using Facebook a few years ago — which admittedly was fairly late in the game—it was easier to glance at my feed and know what was going on in people’s lives.

Now I feel like Facebook is saying, “Oh you can find out that stuff… but you’re going to have to hang around on our site for a long time to do that.” And that’s not an investment of time I feel like making—not for what the rejiggered Facebook offers me in return. But I would love to hear an argument for why this is “better.” Or at least not as terrible as I imagine it to be.

Rodriguez: See, I’ve been on Facebook since around 2006. Back then, it was entirely unfiltered and you saw every single update or move your friends made. It was worse if you had over 100 friends because then your feed would just be swamped, and there was no way of giving preference to some friends over others. When Facebook added apps, it just became even more chaotic. How it is now works because it filters all that noise. Even though you have all those friends on Facebook, you just might not care about everything they say.

Unfortunately, the way Facebook measures how much you care about a particular person is by tracking how you interact with their status updates and wall postings. If you like a bunch of photos by one friend, but never any status updates—you’ll begin to only see photo posts by that person and never really anything else.

You were talking about how you were managing who you were subscribed to—which does work in giving greater weight to certain friends—but that won’t change the types of stories you see in your feed. You basically have to change your own Facebook behaviors if you want to make that happen. Also, Facebook is a company whose goal is to keep you on its site for as long as possible. It makes sense that it would want you to be on there for hours at a time. Heck, my generation is on there practically 20 hours a day.

My best advice: If you really care about what your friends are up to, Facebook isn’t the way to go about checking up on them. Give them a call or go visit them in person. Facebook is about sharing content, which may or may not include status updates or job change notifications.

Michaels: That’s probably true. Though I do wonder how much of this is a product of the gap in our ages. You are a young man whose circle of friends is probably still fairly close by. I am an old geezer whose friends have scattered to the four winds. We may be coming at this from vastly different—and forever incompatible—angles. My only comfort as an old man is that I am likely wiser. And undoubtedly more handsome.

Rodriguez: That’s a debate we’ll have to save for a later time, methinks.

This story, "Nerd Fight: Has Facebook become too cluttered?" was originally published by TechHive.

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