Archive (5/2010): What Facebook needs next: A solution to the “Too-many-friends-problem”

Who was aware of how big and important the EdgeRank aka newsfeed algorithm would become, in the first half of 2010, when I first published this post in my old blog? I wasn’t.  But I saw why it was needed to make it big and important, and wrote this article. It does not exactly lay out how to design the algorithm, but the diagnosis of the situation was pretty accurate, I think. Plus it was the time where, as a freelance consultant 9000km away, you dared to give advice to Facebook:

Twitter was really great. When I followed 60, 70 people I could keep up with their tweets. Then it became stress, and now I am “following” 555 people, brands, whatevers, and I don’t really care about what they are writing. I catch some tweets by random when I go to the site. Instead, I bookmarked 20 or so twitter accounts that I am really interested in and I visit their sites, old school, opening 20 tabs with domains twitter.com/xyz. I sure don’t want to miss my daily Conan O’Brien tweet, but overall, Twitter became less a social network and more like a “phonebook of customer service sites” to me. When I want quick answers, I don’t email. I send tweets. And that’s about it.

I am scared that something like that could happen to my Facebook as well. Facebook is easier to manage, and when I am offline for a day, the “top news” help me to at least catch some of the important stuff that happened while I was gone. But recently I started to miss posts that would have been really relevant to me. The algorithm for “top news” seems to incorporate how often you liked something, how many messages you sent to a person, how many comments were written to a post etc. – but from my point of view, it still is insufficient. There are people that I see frequently, in real life. So i don’t send them too many messages on Facebook. Still, I want to read what they are posting, but Facebook’s algorithm won’t know that. I see it when I enter Facebook via my mobile browser or an app – there is stuff that was kept from me on my desktop PC for whichever reason. Yes, you can highlight certain users in your news feed options, and yes, you can assemble “lists” and then see updates from list members only, but still: There is a point where you can have too many friends and it becomes impossible to follow everything that they publish. This point may vary from person to person.

For one person, it may be easy to follow 800 people, others may feel stress when more than 60 friends start to post stuff frequently. This can become a serious problem for Facebook’s growth: My latest information states an average amount of 130 friends per user. This number is of course kept small by all the new members that would have less than 50 friends for a period of time. But everyone who stays longer within Facebook gains friends; a lot of friends. My estimate, looking at some of my friends’ profiles, is an annual average growth of at least 15-20%. So it is just a matter of time until everyone hits that “too many friends”-point and then uses the site to publish, but not anymore to really receive information. And in my eyes, this is the great thing about Facebook: Every single day my friends send me to videos, photos, articles, news and other stuff somewhere in the web that I would have never found or searched for by myself. Youtube is a good example. My main Youtube-navigation is not on their site – it’s my Facebook news feed.

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I am fine with missing someone’s Foursquare check-in to some bakery in some village, but I don’t want to miss the link to this awesome gift shop, this funny cartoon or this really interesting article about the future of the internet, published on some Czech blog that only 4 people on earth read frequently, one of them happening to be a friend of a friend. And of course I don’t want to miss this brand promotion with 15% off all goods for all Facebook fanpage members. But that’s what’s happening. I now can see why some people delete their Facebook (which, as I read on Facebook lately, is the new “I don’t own a television”).

It is vital to find a solution here. I already got rid of a lot of fanpages that I don’t ‘really’ need to follow. And I cancelled some friendships, especially with businesses that did not think far enough in the beginning and are now running “normal user profiles”. But this cannot be the solution. Either Facebook works on its algorithm for top news, offers more customization features for the news feed in total or comes up with some awesome new features that make it possible to handle thousands of friends. The good thing is: if they don’t, someone else will.

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