That’s my response to the appearance of “fluff stories” on my Facebook feed. These increasingly annoying additions have one clear message: join the herd. Enjoy these movies, these books, these groups. Everyone else is doing it.
I just have one small problem with this: I don’t care at all about this information – I never find it useful. I takes up way too much of my feed. And I can’t turn it off. So I guess that’s three problems.
Okay, now that that’s done, I’ll go into why this is a step away from what makes Facebook more useful than other social networks. I’ll also investigate why Facebook may have gone this direction – privacy advocates, the answer may outrage you.
The core of what makes Facebook not-other social networks, and more acutely not-MySpace, is that it’s about bringing your offline connections online. The structure of networks, permission-based friendships, strong privacy settings, and an emphasis on quality of friends over quantity is what makes Facebook different, and, I would argue, from the perspective of a young post-collegiate in a professional job, better.
The primary tool to interact with Facebook is the mini-feed. It’s what you see when you log in, and where you can get a dashboard view of what your friends are up to. You can configure your mini-feed to tell you more about the actions or people you care most about and less about those actions and friends you’d prefer to hear less about. I prefer less groups and more wall posts and notes, personally, but that’s just me – your mileage may vary, and that’s part of what makes Facebook great.
There are, of course, some items that you can’t modulate the flow of. One, for obvious reasons, is ads, but as I argued in a previous post, these are to be embraced, not shunned. Another type is data from applications – there are some apps that drop far more than you’d like into your mini-feed. While there aren’t granular settings for applications, you can tell them that they can’t post any stories in your feed, so you at least have some control. Both of these are reasonable – ads are needed to keep the servers running (plus Mark Zuckerberg’s money bin doesn’t fill itself!), and apps are so varied that it would be impossible to have a single setting rule them all correctly.
But fluff stories fall into a completely different category. They don’t bring in revenue, but since Facebook is in control of them, there’s no reason why users shouldn’t be able to opt-out or at least turn them down. At the moment, it seems you get at least one or two of these per day, and they’re not small stories – according to my PixelRuler, the two fluff stories presently clogging my feed take up 278 of the 1150 vertical pixels in my feed. When you take out the 138 pixels that are used on an ad, that means about 27.5% of my useable feed space is taken up by these fluff stories. That’s a pretty significant amount of real estate.
To play the devil’s advocate for the moment, let’s try to figure out why these compulsory stories were added. In a college network, it could be argued that it makes sense to share what the larger gestalt mind is thinking – what all your classmates are reading, what groups they’re in, what movies they like. And Facebook was originally built for educational networks, so it stands to reason that features would continue to play for this audience.
I would argue, however, that there still remains the question of how fluff stories are useful. A listing of the most popular groups would tell students about groups they should join. But groups are really nothing more than bumper stickers, and if a group is so popular that it would make the top five, in theory you would already have heard of it from your friends feeds or group lists if you were interested in its content. Similarly, the list of books and movies will, once created, largely remain stagnant. It may move a little from week to week (a newly popular book may appear and then fall), but most people don’t update their favorites lists with enough frequency to make this very dynamic. After all, it’s a list of favorites, not a list of things people like that day.
And these arguments take on even less meaning in a geographical network – these networks tend to be so large (my network, the Washington, DC area, boasts more than 270,000 people) that it’s hard to find a real affinity with your fellow network members. If it applied to neighborhoods or small towns, it might make the answers interesting, but I don’t know that I really feel that the preferences of the entire DC metro area really interest me that much. In addition, these lists tend to stagnate even more – the list of top books reads to me like my 10th grade required reading list (plus the obligatory Harry Potter).
So there remains a question of what manifest benefit these provide. Is it to encourage people to change their interests more frequently? These interests form the way Facebook targets their advertising, so it’s in their interest to have more people fill out this info and keep it up to date. But why would they choose this roundabout and ham-handed a way? Is it because most people will assume it’s not to improve their ad targeting, and avoid another privacy uprising?
At any rate, we’ll hopefully see an end to the forced feeding of fluff stories. I’ve joined a couple groups that advocate removal of fluff stories, and I’d imagine that we’ll see more soon (of course, I’m sure Stephen Colbert would have something to say about protesting by joining a Facebook group, but to be fair, it’s about a Facebook problem). My colleague Paul, also an opponent of fluff stories, found a Greasemonkey script for Firefox that lets you take out the fluff stories (and the ads too, while you’re at it). And of course, several users have sent in comments to Facebook management and received the same response I did:
Hi John [Brian],
We appreciate your email. At this time you cannot control the visibility of these stories on your News Feed. We will certainly consider your feedback going forward and appreciate your comments. Please let us know if you have any further questions or concerns.
Thanks for contacting Facebook,
Customer Support Representative
If you’re with me, and would rather see an end to mandatory fluff stories, be sure to contact Facebook and tell them so. And if you disagree, and think we should be subjected to compulsory fluff stories, share your reasoning in the comments. I’d write more but I’m off to see the movies my fellow DC area Facebookers say I should. Baaaaaa!