familiar news feeds

Rethinking the News Feed

A humble attempt to challenge the well-established concept of scrolling into the past

The news feed concept is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Basecamp, you name it. We all got used to it, but I think there’s a major flaw in there, which is invisible because news feed has become a habit, a part of everyday routine. Let’s pause and think together for a while.

I think that reading the feed from top to bottom, endlessly scrolling into the past, might not be the best reading experience.

I’ll take Twitter as an example and will illustrate some points on the example of tweets and a feed composed of them. The ideas and principles apply to any other app or social network as well.

Missing the important stuff

The main premise is that the content of my feed is interesting and I don’t want to miss a single story. It’s all important—I don’t scroll the feed just to kill some time. So when I close Twitter, the next time I open it I’ll try to read all the recent tweets.

Since there are a lot of tweets appearing, I might not have the time to read all of them at once, and will close Twitter again. Now it’s getting worse: when I open the feed, I’ll have to scroll to find where I’ve finished the last time, and then read everything that I’ve missed. Imagine I don’t make it again. Scroll, scroll, scroll.

Losing context

For some reason we have accepted the idea of reading the feed from the top, starting with the most recent items. This approach breaks the consistency of the information flow. The user history is not considered: what I’ve read earlier or how long I’ve been absent.

How about coherence between posts? I believe you too have encountered double tweets, which are so convenient to read. Here’s a typical example (didn’t take me long to find).

Read second tweet, realize it’s a continuation of the first, then read the second one again. Productivity at its best.

Same goes for Twitter threads which are impossible to read, but you know that already. Moving on.

What to do

I suggest treating the continuous information flow as such. There are several ways to do this, but the main idea is this:

I believe that each reader should be able to read the most relevant part of the feed—new stories (since the last visit).

Here is one of the concepts I’ve come up with.

One of the possible implementations. Scroll down to the latest read post, then scroll up to continue reading.

I press a button, the feed scrolls down to the latest post I’ve read, and then I scroll up to continue reading. This approach is the simplest in terms of implementation, because it requires minor changes in the apps. Reading from bottom to top might be uncomfortable, though.

Update: Twitter and iPhone screen were chosen at random to illustrate the concept—the ideas apply just as well to Facebook on the web. As several readers noticed, the choice is a miserable failure: it turns out that Twitter iPhone app does (almost) exactly that, keeping the focus on the last read tweet. I hope you’ll forgive me there.

Other ways to go about this problem include redesigning the news feed, bringing some order into it and tying it tighter with the contexts in which readers interact with the information.

One solution is to add Hide read posts button (could be also captioned Show only new posts). The feed presentation wouldn’t change, but with this option on, the feed would not be infinitely scrollable: it will end before the last seen post, perhaps with a button saying View older stories.

Another option would be to reverse the order of posts, showing the last read post upon opening the feed. The reader would scroll down towards the most recent posts, and scroll up for older stories. New stories appear at the bottom, which fits rather nicely into the pattern.

Outro

None of these concepts is ready to be shipped, of course. Rather, I’ve presented an observation of the existing problem and some solutions of it. Apparently, even the simplest things can provide thought-provoking challenges.

Please share your ideas; I very much appreciate all the feedback.


Update: After a few days I’ve eventually realized that the best way to go is to split the news feed in two: New stories and Old stories. New stories will become the entry page, of course. This would keep the interface almost intact, yet all the read stuff will not appear in the main feed. “Go to old stories” suggestion would appear at the end of the feed too ease up the transition.
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