Dealing with Facebook’s Recent Changes

I’ve been using Facebook for a few years.  One of the common occurrences in Facebook-land is that you bring it up one morning or evening and it looks like some new environment compared to the last time you were there.  That sort of thing happened a couple of times in the last week or so.

Many of my Facebook news feed messages this morning were complaining about Facebook’s recent changes, mostly the new Top Stories focus and/or the ticker-tape-like/Twitter feed-ish updates on that page. I have to admit my first reaction to the changes was partly, “ugh!” and partly, “here we go again!” However, after doing some quick research on the changes and the reasons for them, and comparing what I found there to my own thoughts, especially after a bit of experience with Google+, I thought I’d try to keep an open mind about the changes and, perhaps more significantly, I’d see if I might be able to use the changes to actually improve my Facebook experience.

Well, it took me maybe a half an hour to get used to the new interface, and perhaps another half an hour or an hour to make some configuration changes on my account and the various interfaces to it, but I’m at the point now where I’m feeling like I will strongly prefer the new Facebook interface. Here are some of my findings, as well as some configuration tips that may at least provide the possibility of using Facebook more or less how you did before the changes, but which might actually make the new Facebook preferable to the old in terms of the time drain factor that a Facebook habit tends to impose.

First, a bit about the two new features that are generating the most complaints.

Facebook consolidated their two views of the news feed, “Top Stories” and “Recent” (or was it “Most Recent” — I’ve already forgotten) into one news feed that has “Top Stories” at the top, the time-ordered, most recent-first updates below that. The biggest complaint is that the top stories get in the way of just getting to the time-ordered status updates, which are what most people want to read if they’re trying to keep up on everything. A secondary complaint is that the stuff that appears in the top stories section can seem pretty arbitrary, or even downright silly. Facebook has algorithms to decide what goes there, such as who you interact with the most, the nature of the post (e.g. status updates versus photos versus videos versus links), and the amount of feedback (e.g. Likes, comments) a post generates. Something that wouldn’t inherently be in your top stories feed, and which doesn’t initially get placed there, might get put there later if a lot of other people comment on it and/or Like it. (I have no clue on the algorithms, so perhaps it may also matter whether the people who do that are your friends.) If you don’t agree that something in your Top Stories section should be there, just click on the blue tab at the upper left corner of the item, and Facebook will register that you didn’t agree with their choice, and this should affect the choices that get made for you in the future. I have no clue how specifically it will affect it (e.g. does doing it on a photo link from one of your more active friends suggest to Facebook that you don’t like photos so much or that you don’t consider posts from that friend to be top story-worthy or …?). But the idea is that, over time, your Top Stories section should come closer to reflecting what you might most like to be aware of if your Facebook reading time is limited but you don’t want to miss the most important updates. Perhaps if you just click everything that is there it might ultimately whittle the Top Stories section down to nothing? I did click a bunch of items yesterday, and my Top Stories section today seemed closer to what I’d want to see, and possibly also shorter, though I’m less certain on the latter part.

The other key thing people complain about is the ticker tape-like feed of status updates. It can certainly be distracting, but I have to say I actually like that. It shows what is happening in real time, and also makes it possible to respond quickly to anything of interest without losing your context in your news feed. In particular, if you see a status update you want to read and/or respond to, just mouse over that item, and it will pop it up, and you can read the details and respond if you like. Once you’re done, just hit the Esc key or click in another portion of the screen, and you’re back to where you were. If you still hate it, though, I’ll mention a strategy to avoid it while still getting your news-like updates once I mention the additional new features that are needed to do that.

Another key change Facebook made recently involved their lists. Facebook has long had lists, which are very much like Google+’s circles, but they weren’t very apparent in Facebook’s interface, so I’d guess not a whole lot of people actually used them (I know I didn’t). The general idea is you may have lots of Facebook friends, but they aren’t all equivalent. Different ones may be family, high school friends, college friends, work friends, neighbors, church friends, casual acquaintances, etc. Some things you’d like to share only with specific groups of people but not others. For example, you may not want your embarrassing photos from last night at the club to be seen by anyone you ever knew who happens to be on Facebook. Maybe those are only for your close friends or college friends.

The key things Facebook changed in the area of lists are making the lists visible on the left side of your news screen and creating some lists automatically to get you started. The former makes it easier to access lists and think about using lists, and the latter gets you off to a quick start by creating some lists based on people’s profile information such as high school, college, and current city. Beyond the automatically-generated lists, though, there are some automatically created lists whose use requires you to add friends into the appropriate lists. The ones that are immediately visible are Close Friends and Acquaintances, and the idea is that you’ll see more information from people on your Close Friends list than from people on your Acquaintances list. You have to choose, though, who is on which list. There is also a Restricted list, and people you put on that list will only see information you designate as public. (Perhaps this may be the place to put your boss if you don’t want him to see your drunken party pictures?) You can use the lists both for filtering what you view and for deciding who sees a given post you are making. To see just posts from people on a specific list, just click on the name of the list on the left-hand side of your news window, and it will show you posts from those people in most recent-first time order. For example, you can use this to only see the posts from your family (or at least the people whom you’ve listed as family, and who have acknowledged that relationship, on Facebook) or the people on your Close Friends list (and they don’t have to agree that you’re a close friend in this case, nor will they know they’re on your list unless you tell them). To post an item just to people on a specific list, choose that list instead of whatever your default is just to the left of the Post button when you’re making a post. (If you want to specify more than one list, it is a bit tricky, but use the Custom selection, then choose Specific People or Lists in the pop-up box, then start typing the name of a list and or person, and choose the right one when it pops into view, then choose the next and continue until you’ve chosen all you want.)

Okay, so here’s the workaround I alluded to above with respect to getting a view similar to the old “Recent” news view. The list views provide a most recent first view of anything coming from the people in that list. You could conceivably create a list with all your friends on it so you see everything from everyone in this view. It also does not have the ticker tape-type status update window. In fact, it greatly resembles the old news view.

Better yet, though, I’d suggest using multiple lists that relate somehow to the information you’d like to see from various people. For example, you might use the Close Friends list that is made for you (albeit with no one on there by default) for people for whom you want to see every update (and, yes, you can filter out games from the updates if you’ve got friends who play Farmville or whatever but you’re not into that yourself). You could conceivably put all the rest in acquaintances. Then, if you’re in a big hurry with your Facebook time some day, but you don’t want to miss something important, you might only read the Close Friends list that day, leaving the Acquantaintances list for when you have more time. Also, you can display different sets of information on the different lists. You might see everything (except games!) on your Close Friends list, but leave out when your Acquaintances comment on other people’s stuff or “Like” other people’s stuff. You might do different filterings for your high school list than from your work friends list. Etc.

There are some other changes, too, such as being able to more selectively filter what you see for any given person. This stuff gets pretty detailed, but the cool thing is you can use as much or as little of it as you like. The thing that seems to make sense to me with this is to try the defaults, then, if something annoys you, tweak it. This is especially true with the per-friend settings, where you might want to see most everything from some people, but there is this one person who keeps posting too much of a specific type of thing for you to handle, so you might not want that particular type of post from that individual. (That stuff is set in the pop-up list that comes up when you use the little “X” box near the top right corner of a post when you’re mousing over it.)

The bottom line for me is that the new Facebook changes took a minor bit of getting used to, but I think I really like them as of the moment. I also noticed that reading Facebook mostly through my newly configured lists, after having tweaked what I see on those lists, saved me a good amount of time reading Facebook this morning compared to how it’s been most of the time lately. And it really didn’t take me much time to make the configuration changes on my account, most of which I made on the fly as I ran into something I thought could be improved.

Of course, if you still hate “the new Facebook”, you could go over and try Google+). I’m on there . Only a few of my Facebook friends are, though, so it feels a bit like a ghost town at the moment.