The Most Influential Feature on the Internet Quietly Launched Seven Years Ago

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 12 2013 5:36 AM

Facebook News Feed Changed Everything

Media. Advertising. Politics. And us.

What Mark Zuckerberg's News Feed looked like in 2006.
What Mark Zuckerberg's news feed looked like in 2006

Courtesy of Facebook

In the time before news feed, the Web was a strange, quiet, and probably very lonely place. I say “probably” because I can barely remember the way things worked back then. After Facebook launched news feed, nothing on the Web would ever be the same again.

Get this: Before news feed, which launched seven years ago this month, you could post a picture or some other personal detail somewhere—your Facebook or MySpace or Friendster page, Flickr, Blogger, LiveJournal—and be reasonably sure that it would remain just there, unseen by pretty much everyone you knew. The only way someone might find it is by checking your page. Sure, some people would do that—but everyone had scores of connections online, so no one was checking each of their friends’ pages. The net effect was solitude. In The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick’s history of Facebook’s early years, Chris Cox, who’s now the company’s vice president of product, recounts the founding idea for news feed: “The Internet could help you answer a million questions, but not the most important one, the one you wake up with every day: How are the people doing that I care about?”

Looking back, it’s clear that news feed is one of the most important, influential innovations in the recent history of the Web. News feed forever altered our relationship to personal data, turning everything we do online into a little message for friends or the world to consume. You might not like this trend—or, at least, you might claim you don’t like this trend. But the stats prove you probably do. News feed is the basis for Facebook’s popularity, the thing that initially set it apart from every other social network, and the reason hundreds of millions of us go back to the site every day.

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But news feed is bigger than that. Either directly or indirectly, it’s the inspiration for just about every social-media feature that has come along since. News feed paved the way for Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, and Quora—for every site that thrives off of the communities created by lots of people’s individual contributions. News feed changed the media (it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed without it), advertising, politics, and, to the extent that it altered how we all talk to one another, society itself.

Yes, that sounds over-important. But consider this: Thanks to news feed, I learned today that that this one dude I barely knew in high school just had a baby. I know what his half-clothed wife looked like just after labor. I’ve seen his mother-in-law. I’ve seen his infant daughter. Is such forced, daily, crushing intimacy good or bad for the world? None of us can say for sure yet. Either way, though, it’s hugely consequential—because we now know everything about everyone, the way we relate to one another has changed enormously, and permanently.

News feed was born on Sept. 5, 2006. Facebook announced the feature in a short, straightforward blog post that offered no hints of the magnitude of the change coming to the site. At the time, Facebook was still available only to students and others with select email addresses. It had around 10 million active users, meaning it was dwarfed by other social networks, especially MySpace. (Facebook opened itself up to everyone later that September.)

“News Feed … updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you'll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again,” Ruchi Sanghvi, then a Facebook product manager, wrote in the announcement. By bringing everyone’s news to you, Facebook’s engineers reasoned, news feed would make Facebook much easier to use. Sanghvi added: “These features are not only different from anything we've had on Facebook before, but they're quite unlike anything you can find on the web.”

She was right. News feed was different—so different that people immediately hated it. News feed sparked the first of many major privacy firestorms for Facebook, the first time people questioned how the information they were posting on the site might be used by others. A few days after it launched, amid a storm of protest, Mark Zuckerberg posted a mea culpa (also the first of many) in which he promised to tweak Facebook’s privacy controls to mitigate some people’s worries. But Facebook didn’t get rid of news feed, because however loudly people protested, the company could see that people loved it.

By turning a series of lonely events into something like a story—by combining all your friends’ actions into a community, or even a conversation, on your home page—news feed gave Facebook a soul. Thanks to news feed, people started finding one another and working together in ways that had never happened on the site before. “Before news feed, you could join groups, but discovering them was not super easy,” Cox explained at a recent Facebook press event. “Within a period of two weeks after the news feed launch we had the first group with over a million people—which means a million people had seen the group and taken an action to join it.” There’s a punch line to this story that’s a testament to our enduring ambivalence about news feed. The first Facebook group that news feed propelled to million-plus membership was a protest against News Feed.

In the years since its launch, Facebook has constantly changed both the appearance and the mechanics behind news feed, and the current version is the product of one of the most complex computational processes you deal with on a regular basis. Facebook has always tried to present only a subset of the stuff people are posting—the posts it thinks you’re most likely to like. In its earliest incarnation, engineers tuned news feed manually, tweaking the frequency of certain kinds of posts—more pictures, fewer news stories—in response to user engagement. Later on, they developed a more formal algorithm, sometimes called EdgeRank, which took into account broad factors about people’s relationships in deciding what showed up on your feed. (For example, EdgeRank might determine that a photo from your mom is more important than a news story from your friend, partly based on information that Facebook’s engineers had hard-coded into the system.)

But EdgeRank wasn’t sophisticated enough. Ideally, everyone’s ranking algorithm should be personalized, and news feed should recognize those preferences and tweak our stories accordingly. “A few years ago, we stopped working on EdgeRank, and started working on a machine-learning approach,” says Serkan Piantino, the engineer who worked on some of news feed’s earliest ranking systems. Now, every time you load up news feed, the new system takes thousands of factors into account to present a feed that is personalized to your tastes. The machine-learned algorithm constantly tweaks itself based on how you interact with it: If you click like on a lot of memes, you’re going to see more of those. For every user, the system has to instantly analyze and rank an average of 1,500 posts every time the site is reloaded.

And engineers keep making the system more complex. Lars Backstrom, the engineering manager for news feed ranking, says that one of his team’s current goals is to get news feed to present information that hasn’t been explicitly shared by your friends. For instance, say you love Ricky Gervais, but none of your friends care for him. They aren’t likely to post anything about his new Netflix show—but given what news feed’s ranking system knows about your interests, it should determine that you might like Willa Paskin’s review of Derek more than you might like, say, another post about your mom’s friend’s visit to the Hamptons. “If something really interesting happens in the world, we should know enough about you to pull that in even if you haven’t explicitly connected to it,” Backstrom says.

He adds that news feed doesn’t really do this yet, “because we aren’t very good at it.” But the fact that Facebook is working on this problem illustrates the scale of its ambitions for news feed. Facebook doesn’t just want to be the front page for your social life; ultimately, it wants to be the one place online you check for everything you care about.

You can question whether this is good for society. One persistent worry about the news feed approach to information is the Filter Bubble critique—the idea that by engaging only with stuff that’s been algorithmically determined to appeal to us, we’re all tunneling into echo chambers of our own preferences. I explored that critique in my own book, though research into the question has since shown that the bubble is, thankfully, more porous than we might fear.

Another critique of news feed is that it has turned us all into narcissists, and worse, that it’s making us depressed about how much better everyone else’s life is. The trouble with that critique is that News Feed is only a reflection of your own interaction with it: If it’s serving up stuff that makes you sad, it’s only because that’s the stuff you’re most engaged with. If it’s true that news feed drives us crazy, we theoretically have the power to fix it. The news feed we have is the news feed we deserve.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.