Why Facebook needs a new News Feed, and now

If News Feed were a window, the frame would be dilapidated and the glass distorted after years of wear and tear. The window, if it is to provide an engrossing enough view, needs a remodel.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
3 min read
James Martin/CNET
Tomorrow, Facebook will do more than window-dress News Feed, its most important asset. The social network will take nine years of intelligence on how members consume content to fashion the stream into a brand-new window that ideally provides people with the most optimal view at all times.

The company, according to TechCrunch, will allow for new ways to dive into News Feed. Members will reportedly be able to scan a photos-only feed of Facebook and Instagram images, or check out the listening habits of friends in a feed dedicated to all things music. Images will be bigger. Ads will be harder to ignore. You may also get individual feeds for news, videos, and apps.

The changes, whatever they turn out to be exactly, will be significant, have far-reaching consequences that affect how people use Facebook, and will determine whether the social network can capitalize on its most prized asset without driving people away.

The updates could be the most noticeable alterations to the News Feed since the product was first introduced in September 2006. That spells trouble. Even the slightest adjustments, like the ability to sort by Top Stories or Most Recent -- a feature added in late 2011 -- have stirred the pot and incited Facebook users who resent change.

Get ready for big changes to Facebook's News Feed. Screenshot by Jennifer Van Grove/CNET
But change is needed. If Facebook's News Feed were a window, an analogy the company itself has employed to describe the stream, the frame would be dilapidated and the glass distorted after years of wear and tear. The window, if it is to provide an engrossing enough view, needs a remodel.

Facebook has lost its luster with teens, a group of digital trendsetters who will determine whether the social network can withstand the test of time or become the next Friendster. An image-centric feed may give these youngsters, who clearly have a predilection for Instagram, a reason to stay and browse a little while longer.

The company also has a perception problem with adults, particularly when it comes to how it ranks and prioritizes stories in News Feed. Facebook employs an internal system called EdgeRank to algorithmically determine what to show each member. The system is far from perfect, and many believe that Facebook is holding their status updates hostage in the hopes that they'll pay to promote their stories for wider distribution.

Should Facebook reorganize News Feed with content-specific options, the company will help members discover more of the content they want to see and possibly quiet a few critics.

Facebook wholeheartedly believes that presenting the right content to people will keep them around for the long haul. In a interview at a recent investor conference, Chief Financial Officer David Ebersman talked about the significance of sorting content in News Feed. The social network's ability to chose the most interesting information for you "will be core to our ability to continue to have engaged users even as they contemplate other services," he said.

Remodeling News Feed is also Facebook's way of getting advertisers to pay more attention to Sponsored Stories. With Sponsored Stories in News Feed, or News Feed ads as they're also called, brands pay to promote their own status updates in the stream. Should Facebook make images in these ads larger, as is rumored, the company would make the units more fetching to advertisers and, perhaps, users.

News Feed ads, which only rolled out last June, bring in a small fraction of Facebook's total advertising revenue -- Facebook made $1.33 billion from advertising products in the fourth quarter -- though the company continues to talk about them as the ad unit of the future. The appeal, Ebersman said, is that when done well, News Feed ads blend in to the stream. In theory, should Facebook get the look and flow of News Feed ads just right -- and bigger images could help with that challenge -- the company would be able to show more and more of the units without annoying too many of its members.

What's clear is that News Feed needs to evolve to fit the changing needs and wants of members and advertisers. But in remodeling News Feed, Facebook has a lot stake. Though the renovations are likely designed to beautify and better organize the social network, not everything about tomorrow's curtain-lifting will be pretty -- member reactions included.