The past year has brought a great deal of handwringing over Facebook’s News Feed algorithms. While Twitter was abuzz over the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, all anyone saw on Facebook was the Ice Bucket Challenge. Meanwhile, news publishers griped when the stories that received the most attention on Facebook were quizzes and puppy videos, even as Facebook’s own Product Director, without a hint of irony, blamed the press for ruining news. That’s hard for journalists to swallow considering that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm plays a huge role in deciding what stories to serve up to users — and frankly, the algorithm may be designed more with advertisers in mind than users.
But starting today, if hard news and analysis fails to reach readers on Facebook, publishers may have no one to blame but readers themselves. Facebook has just implemented a new tool that makes it easier for users to control what they see in their News Feed. Facebook will now show which pages and people take up the most space in a user’s News Feed, then provide the option to unfollow these people without unfriending them. Facebook has always given users the option to unfollow without unfriending, but this new feature puts the functionality front and center.
As power users bemoan the possibility of Twitter becoming too algorithmically-driven, Facebook is moving in the opposite direction, putting more control in the hands of users to curate their feeds. The “Follow” and “Unfollow” buttons Facebook added even look strikingly similar to Twitter’s.
For publishers and pages, this adds even more urgency to create compelling content on Facebook. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your perspective. On one hand, writing stories and headlines that don’t bore your readers is a fundamental part of serving your audience. On the other hand, longer, more in-depth pieces often don’t lend themselves to the ADHD-addled click-and-scroll tendencies of the modern social and mobile era. When on mobile, distracted by texts, notifications, and FOMO-inducing Facebook photos, readers want to know they can dip in and out of a story quickly before tapping on a headline. A complex story about an investigation into campaign finance malfeasance is far more daunting than a quiz about which Garfield character you are.
Facebook’s latest tweak is undoubtedly good for users. But is it good for publishers? Well, if nothing else, we can now spend less time complaining about Facebook’s News Feed and more time figuring out how to best serve readers. And if what readers really want are Amanda Bynes freakout videos and cat quizzes? Then it might be time to find a business model that doesn’t rely on Facebook traffic.