Facebook is in the midst of a major redesign of their feed. They’re releasing it incrementally, but everyone should have it in the very near future. The biggest complaints about every feed design since its inception in 2006 have been about its ‘cluttered’ look — that there are simply too many things happening on the screen. This latest design addresses that complaint by bringing larger in-line photos and larger interactive elements. But that’s not the biggest story from Facebook’s new look. Redesigning the Facebook feed isn’t about making the ‘Facebook experience’ more visually appealing or easier to use. Facebook wants to change the way we use Facebook. They want to change Facebook’s purpose, because the race is on to be the container for all of your consumption.
Larger photos and a cleaner interface are great changes aesthetically, there’s no argument there, but the bigger change is functional. Content is now the center of the Facebook experience, not relationships. It’s been shifting that way for a few years, but while Facebook’s professed purpose remains grounded in being the #1 network for connections between you and the people you know in the ‘real world’, the novelty of an online forum/scrapbook/messaging site has worn at the edges. ‘Content is King’, the now terribly clichéd saying goes, and content created outside of Facebook, content outside of photos of your friend’s newborn child or ex-girlfriend’s wild night out, has taken up more and more of the average feed. The network that was built to connect people is transforming from a communication platform with sharing ability into a content platform with communication ability.
It doesn’t take much looking around at the state of the web to figure out why Facebook is changing its strategy. We have never produced more content nor consumed it more than we do now. There’s so much to watch, to read, to listen to, to look at, that finding the best ways to consume all of this content becomes a problem that needs a solution. More specifically, determining what content to consume and where to consume it becomes a problem. And that’s where the massive world of online curation comes in, and it’s the point of this post.
When I turn on my smartphone and launch Songza I choose between hundreds of pre-curated playlists. I open whatever Twitter client I’m using that week and look at countless links and tidbits of news from the over 700 people I’ve chosen to curate my feed. I check Google + and see multiple curated lists of articles, most of them interesting to me. Flipboard curates all of my political and tech news, Feedly before it. On Reddit, tens of thousands of complete strangers curate content by ‘upvoting’ and ‘downvoting’ content. Everything. Is. Curated.
Curating is how we've dealt with the incredible amount of content on the web, and all of these services are competing to be the final destination of the content — the place you’ll discover and consume the content. Where they differ is WHO does the curating. As we all venture further and further into the depths of the internet we find people that share our interests. Lots of them, actually. Letting these people -- people you look up to or share interests with or share careers with -- curate the content you see starts to make more sense than letting your great aunt Sally run the show. That’s the problem Facebook really faces: What if people don't enjoy the content their peers share? And if that’s the case, who or what should curate the content in their place?
That’s a tough question to answer. I like my friends. I like the same things as many of my friends. Do I want my friends to be the curators of the content I consume? No. A thousand times no. Facebook’s own Jane Justice Leibrock recently posted in the Facebook User Experience Lab blog about the process Facebook went through in redesigning the new News Feed, and they found that I’m not alone in that sentiment. Despite users saying they wanted posts from companies, news stories, and music filtered out of their feed, they interacted with this content significantly more than their own friends’ posts. Facebook’s solution? Take the power away from your friends. Subscribe to more curated content by publishers, by influential people in topics of interest, by news outlets.
The best analogy I’ve heard about the structure of content on today’s internet goes like this: Imagine a big port. That port’s all yours, it’s where all of the things you consume come in to dock. Now, you could hop in your little sailboat and visit all of the island sites you want content from, but that wouldn’t be very convenient. You could visit the maiden isle of The Verge or the continent of CNN. But no, there’s no time for that. You can have your content delivered. Well, content platforms like Wordpress, Blogger, Medium, and YouTube bring in ships to your port. But that won’t do either — those ships bring in a lot of content but it’s not worth checking each ship individually. What you need is a monster ship to carry all of the content mediums. More than that, you need an excellent crew on board that monster ship to sort through the containers of content and pick out the worthwhile bits. That’s what services like Facebook and Google+ try to be — giant transport ships that let you choose your own crew. But will Facebook users have the stomach to fire half of their friends from the crew?