The One Feature That Changed Social Networking Forever

| August 4, 2013 | 17 Comments

What is the single most important innovation that Facebook ever came up with?

Before I answer that, let’s think of the real value for users on a social network. Social networks are a classic example of the platform business model where users create all the value and there is very little value until users come on board. Real value for every individual user, then, is the value that his network is capable of creating.

Most communication and networking products have never truly succeeded in capturing this value on an ongoing basis. E.g. I might be connected to a lot of users on a communication product but I need to be actively engaged in a conversation to benefit from these connections.

This is why the News Feed is Facebook’s most important innovation. It allows users to constantly benefit from the surge of activity in their network neighborhood. It’s a stalker’s delight, a lurker’s guilty pleasure. But the News Feed is the single most important innovation that changed social networking from a user-centric to a network-centric activity.

It changes the use case for an entire product category. Post the News Feed, social networking was no longer about staying connected with a friend or even with a group. For the first time, social networking was about staying connected with one’s entire network.



The move from transaction to engagement

The News Feed represents a leap in the evolution of online communication and networking products. Online communication and networking have traditionally been transactional in nature. Email has always been a transactional product. Chat is transactional as well. We use these products only when we want to engage in an actual exchange (of information) with someone else.

Early social networks were built along the same lines. Imagine the days of Orkut, Bebo and, even, MySpace. Social networking, back then, was an extension of the existing communication models around email and chat. You typically logged on to connect with friends. If you didn’t want to connect with friends, you just never logged on. The dominant use case on these social networks was transactional.

The News Feed changed that! It moved social networking from a transactional use case to an engagement-driven use case.

Engagement products need to provide a minimum guarantee of activity to keep the user engaged. Transaction products, in contrast, need to ensure liquidity and the assurance that the user can complete a transaction conveniently.

If you think of Facebook pre-News-Feed, users used the platform largely to communicate with others. The News Feed shifted value in the platform from mere connections (and communication) to content (and engagement).


First among equals?

By no means is the news feed the only determiner of engagement on Facebook. The decision to allow developers to build out an app economy on top of Facebook and the creation of social use cases on top of Facebook (most notably gaming and gifting), clearly helped the engagement cause. However, across all initiatives that Facebook ever took, the one that has been most persistent and that eventually took over as the default home screen – the first ‘feature’ that a user is exposed to on every log in – is the news feed.


The representation of the network effect

In traditional social networking, the feature that the user kept returning to was his own profile, with some notifications alerting specific network activity. This is why having the News Feed as the default Home Page is rather important. It changes social networking from a user-centric to a network-centric activity.

The News Feed embodies the very concept of the network effect. It shows that the network effect isn’t simply a function of the number of other nodes you are connected to but also of the nature of the links that connect you with them. A user’s past interaction with other nodes is a great determiner of the strength of ties between nodes. A real world network would have certain ties stronger than others. The news feed captures this and creates a user-centric view of the network.

This is also why I believe Facebook deserves credit for pioneering the news feed. An activity stream or news feed like feature was already present in Twitter, and before that, on Flickr. But these never gave an accurate representation of the network and were at best, mere activity streams aggregating the activity at neighboring nodes. There was no focus on the nature of the link with neighboring nodes. This is where Facebook’s focus on optimizing the news feed algorithm creates a more accurate representation of one’s network than ever before.


A stronger network effect?

One might argue that the news feed also creates a stronger network effect. With traditional social networks, you could have a few hundred friends but it was arguably the same 10 friends bringing you back to the platform. This meant that losing those 10 friends to another platform could signal the need for you to make the move as well. With the news feed, a stream from a much wider circle of friends constantly hits you. When the central use case shifts from communication with individual friends to interaction with the overall network (via the news feed), it could potentialy make the network more resilient to a situation with reverse network effects.


Beyond social networking

Moreover, this doesn’t apply only to social networks. Any business model which relies on user-generated content can benefit from a well-architected news feed. Even marketplaces, which have traditionally been transactional, are creating engagement with a news feed.


Design principles

The key design consideration is relevance. A news feed should help with personalized discovery. This introduces another tension. Relevance and personalization often tend to reinforce things that we are already interested in. A personalized feed should factor in some form of serendipity to ensure that users do not get increasingly served only those objects that reinforce their preferences. (Designing for serendipity is far from trivial and merits a post in itself, sometime soon.)

If you’re building a networked product, think of what embodiment of the network can be delivered to the user. The News Feed is brilliant because it takes a user’s network and individual actions and builds out something that results when the two are superimposed on each other. This is exactly how our social experience works in the real world. Our world is shaped by a consequence of the actions that we take with our environment. None of that is, of course, simple enough to be replicated through a mathematical model. But the news feed is a great approximation.


Tweetable Takeaways

The news feed moved social networking from a transaction-first to an engagement-first model. Tweet

A news feed helps products deliver value from network effects. Tweet

The News Feed changes social networking from user-centric to network-centric. Tweet

Design principles for building products that capture network effects: Personalize with serendipity. Tweet


Image Credits: @dberkowitz, Creative Commons


About the Author:

  • MK Harkins

    I have a question – is the newsfeed patented? Can any social network use this feature?

  • Franca Condo

    i was working on my post when you replied so quickly :)
    i often edit a bunch of times till i am satisfied. sorry.

    idea for an article. how is linkedin’s network different than facebooks. there is so little activity on linkedin. it is just a there when you need it kinda thing. plus would you say linkedin is user centric?

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    The point of the article wasny’t about fnumber of friends at all. The point is that the news feed is a great interface to interact with any evolving system. In the past, the search box was the main way to evolve with an evolving system. Now we have a new one. The whole point is not that it is a great technology but that it is a new interface model. The pioneer probably was Flickr and Delicious. Facebook just made it the central engagement interface and most others have taken it up from there.

  • Franca Condo

    I dont see the big deal of the News Feed either. if you have 500 friends you need a list of changes. Not that big of an invention. Pretty obvious. Lots of software has shown people delta changes — even word processors. Really Facebook is Friendster working properly. Maybe the biggest addition Facebook brought to social networking was bringing the advertisers in to pay. Sales. I dont think Friendster had much in terms of advertising before it pretty much stopped working at somewhere around 40 million users.

  • Camilo Acosta

    It was a real overhead, but again, time on site was huge compared to now. That said, the average Facebook user only has ~300 or so friends, so the overhead wouldn’t be that high today even for the average user, especially when you consider most people aren’t updating their Facebook status every day. Many stalk, rarely update. My guess is time on site was decreasing as the novelty wore off over time (especially when it opened up to non-college networks aka people with less free time) and the Newsfeed was a way to keep engagement and retention high with lower investment from the user.

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Thanks Camilo, this actually validates the need for the news feed. Browsing individual walls is feasible till a certain number of connections and so it probably worked well within limited connections. But once it opened up, and connections per user increased, I would expect individual wall browsing to be a real overhead. So from that perspective, the news feed would have actually solved the overhead problem. This is also why I don’t buy the Dunbar’s Number problem for Facebook. The News Feed removes that problem by removing the overhead.

  • Camilo Acosta

    “If you think of Facebook pre-News-Feed, users used the platform largely to communicate with others.”

    I disagree with this. As an early Facebook user (I was an undergrad at Princeton when Facebook came out, so we were one of the first schools to get it), I vividly remember spending hours on Facebook just going through people’s profiles – and that’s what we all did. No one was messaging on Facebook (I don’t think you even could? People just posted on each other’s walls, which barely happens anymore).

    Though I like the newsfeed, if anything it means I spend less time on Facebook than I used to because it condenses all the updates in one feed. Before, people “discovered” updates to people’s profiles by simply browsing through everyone’s walls.

  • Ashwin Ramasamy

    Yes. Most of us (marketplaces) are guilty of doing a hands-off approach to matchmaking buyers & sellers (especially in marketplaces where the item is a knowledge-driven consulting service). In such marketplaces, news feed would be the starting point for a buying community that can peer-evaluate seller credentials / proposals.

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Thanks for this insightful comment. I agree about the relevance vs. recency tension. News feed design has a hell lot of depth. And it’s rarely about technology. It’s all about understanding how a user’s context would interact with the network’s context. Put another way, how would you aggregate the network’s feed and pass it through a user-specific filter to create what the user should see. Designing the user-specific filter is key and that’s where platforms often get it wrong. I like your point about marketplaces becuase it again shows how the marketplace, traditionally a transaction model, is moving to an engagement model.

  • Ashwin Ramasamy

    This post ( and for that matter almost every post) seems like talking to me. While creating news feeds for marketplaces, one should consider relevance vs. recency. In our marketplace (ContractIQ that connects app dev shops with its prospective customers), recency is a more accurate way of designing the feed for the seller (he’d love to see what his peers did recently) while for the buyer, relevance is a more accurate way to displaying the feed (For a buyer in Amsterdam, he’d like to know which European firm did what relatively recently than to know who did what in the previous minute)..Purpose, Design and Architecture of a news feed is a fascinating body of study!

    Thanks for doing this post!

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    Thanks Shariff!

  • Shariff Raffi

    Another great post. Enjoyed the read. Insightful and inspiring. Thanks Sangeet

  • Chris McCoy

    Once you’ve unbundled something and added social data to it, you can rebundle it however you like. Key is you have to unbundle it (map the genome) first. Then user (social) interaction on top of the data and system algorithms can rebundle and redistribute it however you like.

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    I tend to think similarly of platforms as an input-output system. The fundamental unit of the input and output are the same (status updates, photos etc.). The considerations (and hence algorithms) that go into building the two are different. But that is the whole point about unbundling and rebundling.

  • Chris McCoy

    In context of sports, this is our aim at Yoursports.

    Facebook is only one to really nail this.

    Profile inputs = newsfeed outputs.

    So self-expression and identity is news in itself.

  • Sangeet Paul Choudary

    I agree with that observation. Curious to hear your thoughts on where you see this happening today. Any examples?

  • Chris McCoy

    The intersection of profile and newsfeed is a beautiful thing. Alone, they are products in themselves. Combined, they can unbundle industries and re-bundle them around new experiences and new monetization opportunities.