In December, Facebook announced yet another tweak to the News Feed. This time, the social network would begin prioritizing “meaningful” conversations between friends and family over stories from publishers, brands, and businesses. If this all sounds familiar to you, that’s because Facebook has made a number of similar changes in the past.
I was skeptical about the latest shift. Over the last decade, my News Feed has increasingly begun to clog with life updates from hundreds of people I haven’t seen in years. Meanwhile, my closest friends—like many people’s—share less on the platform than ever. After Facebook’s announcement, I deleted the app from my phone, less in protest than in resignation to it having become more of a phone book than a social network.
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Going nuclear seemed hasty though, especially given the thousands of hours I’d invested in Facebook over the years. It also occurred to me that the social network—more so than platforms like Instagram and Twitter—gives its users significant control over what they see in the News Feed, including several levers I’d never bothered to pull. So rather than quit outright, I decided to conduct an experiment.
Over the course of about 10 days, I used Facebook’s built-in features—as well as several third-party tools—to see if I could make the platform fun and “meaningful” again. Some of it worked, but a lot of it didn’t. Mostly it was a reminder that you have more power over your News Feed than Facebook often lets on—for better or worse.
Phase One: See First
My first change was to prioritize pages and profiles to “see first” in my feed. When you click News Feed on the left-hand side of the Facebook desktop site, an option to Edit Preferences* will display. The first option is Prioritize who to see first. I chose a handful of news sites I like reading, some of my close friends, and my boyfriend. Facebook only allows users to choose 30 people and pages to see first; I quickly used all the allocated spots.
The more years I spend on Facebook, the less inclined I am to post weird memes, inside jokes, and any actual feelings.
To some degree, that one change did help my News Feed become more relevant. After I set those preferences, Facebook would usually greet me with a post from my past via the fairly creepy “On This Day” feature, then an ad, then a smattering of posts from The New York Times and other publications I chose. I still didn't see much from my close friends because, well, they don’t often post on Facebook, a major reason my News Feed felt so irrelevant to begin with.
The more years I spend on Facebook, the less inclined I am to post weird memes, inside jokes, and any actual feelings. Same with my friends. That’s because the breadth of people who might see that content has become wider. If I post a political opinion, it’s possible my aunt, my boyfriend’s cousin, and an awkward years-ago Tinder date will see it. Facebook lets users tailor who can see the content they post, but adjusting those settings feels tedious when I can just head to more intimate places like Instagram or Snapchat instead.
A recent report from The Information suggests I’m not alone. Overall sharing on Facebook fell 5.5 percent from the middle of 2014 to the middle of 2015, according to their analysis. That might seem like a small drop, but people shared four times fewer “personal updates”—like thoughts about their lives—during the same period.
But the news organizations I chose to “see first” are posting plenty. At the point, my News Feed led now off with noticeably more articles and videos from publishers I actually like, which wasn't so bad, especially since a side effect of the latest algorithm upheaval was burying them further down.
Phase Two: Tell Them What You Want
I decided next to focus my efforts on the algorithm itself: I began giving Facebook feedback on nearly everything it showed me. It's possible to try and brute force your News Feed by, say, liking every single thing you see. But I wanted to see if I could instead tweak it into something more agreeable.
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