Facebook today is introducing a News Feed control called "See First" that allows users to force it to display posts from certain friends, every time they post, before anything else.
"The idea is that if I 'See First' my wife, every time she posts, her thing is going to be at the top of my feed," Facebook Product Director Adam Mosseri told BuzzFeed News in an interview.
The move gives people using Facebook a strong new, non-algorithmic control to determine what's shown to them -- a tweak that brings the platform a little bit closer to Twitter.
"See First" may seem small, but it's the latest salvo in social media's key battleground: the stream. Social media companies once differentiated themselves by the type of content shown in their stream; Twitter was used for text, Tumblr for GIFs and memes, Instagram for photos and Facebook for friends' pictures and your Uncle Danny's political rants. But they've now nearly all opened themselves up to other forms of content. The competition is therefore really about how effective they can be at getting the best stuff in front of you.
Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, the three biggest social media companies, all have different approaches to winning the stream war. Facebook uses an algorithmic feed, employing a secretive "EdgeRank" formula that shows you what if believes you'll like most. Twitter uses a raw feed, displaying everything that gets posted, in order and without filtering. Snapchat is in the process of building its stream, serving content from friends along with curated snaps in its Stories tab, which is poised to become its main experience.
Since launching its stream in 2007, Facebook has been refining it. The company seems to release new guidance on what type of content it wants every few months, and the constant tweaking gives it an advantage over competitors that might seek to mimic it.
A few years ago, Facebook introduced a human lever to its stream, allowing people to hide, or unfollow, friends whose posts they no longer wanted to see. "See First" is the next step along that path, and a bold one at that.
"News Feed is the heart of what Facebook does," said Mosseri, conveying the importance of the project he's working on. "Most of what people do on Facebook is spend time in a News Feed or is driven by time in a News Feed."
"See First" won't make or break Facebook. But over the long term, the combined effect of small moves like this one will significantly influence its fate.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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