Facebook Profiles and the News Feed

Richard McManus has a post at ReadWriteWeb on the declining significance of profile pages on Facebook.  This is as good a jumping off point as any for a post I’ve been wanting to write about what I consider a missed opportunity for Facebook.  But first, a little background from McManus:

As Facebook becomes more and more popular, the social network giant is putting more emphasis on the real-time feed. In other words, the activities of your friends displayed in reverse chronological order on your Facebook homepage. In the old days of Facebook – and indeed traditionally with social networks like MySpace and Friendster – you’d visit a person’s profile page to see what they’re up to. Facebook changed this paradigm in September 2006, when it introduced the news feed as the primary way to keep track of your friends. In October 2009, that feature was re-named the “live feed” and Facebook introduced a more filtered news feed for your homepage.

Now on to my gripe…*

It’s easy to imagine why Facebook would want to push the feed.  The more often content is updated, the more often you’re likely to check the site.  When a huge percentage of the site’s content is relatively static – profile pages – there is less reason to visit.

Yet, profile pages were central to users’ conception of the site.  This may explain at least a small part of the anger over the introduction of the News Feed and the more recent “Connections”.

And my feed on Facebook is pretty uninteresting.  Though Facebook has taken some steps to improve the relevance of the feed, there’s more work to be done.

Which is why I wish they’d built the feed around the existing structure of the profile.  Facebook already had divided my life up into a surprisingly useful, yet simple, set of categories: music, books, TV, movies, activites and interests.  Why not structure a news feed around these categories, plus a Twitter-esque “what are you up to?” (or Facebook’s “What’s on your mind”)?

For each category, imagine you replaced “Favorite” with “Latest” and posted updates by category.  What are you listening to these days? What’s your favorite TV show this season? What book did you just finish?

Now imagine a feed divied up by these categories.  You could see all the updates at once, of course.  But when looking for new music I could click the Music tab on my Feed to see all my friends’ updates on “Latest Music.”

I suspect that this adaptation of the profile structure would have provoked less rage than the original News Feed rollout.  And though that opportunity is missed, it may not be too late to introduce some sort of basic tag/category structure that accomplishes the same thing.

I know it’d make me check Facebook more often.

*I hesitate to second guess these decisions as I generally think users’ reactions against changes to Facebook – the News Feed being the most prominent example – represent a disappointing bias against change of any kind.  Most users didn’t think much about the changes, nor did they give themselves time to grow accustomed to them; they simply protested something new.

Population and the Senate

Admittedly, this has nothing to do with media or the web – the usual topics of this blog… but the U.S. Senate has been on my mind recently for many reasons, including this excellent New Yorker piece by George Packer.

Since each state has two senators regardless of population I started to wonder what the least representative possible Senate majority would look like.  In other words: what percentage of the U.S. population lives in the 26 least populated states (since the senators of these states, acting together, could technically form a majority)?

It turns out that a Senate majority could be reached that represented only 16% of the country. A filibuster could be broken (60 votes, 30 states) by a coalition representing 22% of the country.

(To reach these figures I used the Census Bureau’s 2009 state population estimates.)

I don’t want to make any normative claim here.  The Senate wasn’t designed to reflect state population and when the nation was founded senators weren’t even directly elected.  I don’t have firm opinions about how I’d reform the Senate so my purpose here is merely descriptive.

That hypothetical majority – 52 Senators from the 26 least populous states – would be comprised of 23 Republicans, 27 Democrats and 2 Independents.

The map below shows the 26 least populous states in DARK GRAY, the next 4 least populous (needed to reach a 60 vote coalition) in LIGHT GRAY, and the 20 most populous in WHITE.

Least representative possible Senate majority

Of course in the 60-vote Senate blocking legislation is significantly easier than passing it.  As David Roberts of Grist notes, senators representing a mere 8.3% of the population could successfully filibuster legislation.

A journalistic ethic for the 21st century

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to preserve the best features of traditional journalism as media continues to be transformed in the online era.  At its best, journalism is defined by the ethic of its practitioners, though defining that ethic can be difficult.  Some might say it’s about objectivity – or even impartiality.  It’s skeptical; it’s independent; it’s “just the facts”.

Whatever it is, there’s a good argument to be made that it’s badly in disrepair, or perhaps even fundamentally ill-suited to the web.  NYU Professor Jay Rosen, for one, has mounted a sophisticated critique against what he dubs “the quest for innocence”, described as “the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus ‘prove’ in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade.”

Yet even if the journalistic ethic is flawed, that doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects worth preserving.  But what are they?  And how might they differ from the basic requirements of what we might call “intellectual integrity” that one would expect from good non-journalistic writing like that of an academic blogger?

I’d puzzled over this question for a while and, despite lots of tentative thoughts, hadn’t really come up with a good model or set of guidelines.  And then Dave Weigel got fired from the Washington Post, setting off debate over the role of the blogger/reporter.  Via Harvard’s Nieman Lab I came across this post by Jim Henley outlining the blog-reporter ethos:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically magazine-reporter ethos, says Henley.

I submit that this is just magazine-journalism ethos with the addition of cat pictures. If you think about what good long and short-form journalism looks like at a decent magazine, it looks like the bullet-points above…

…What blogging does is enable the magazine-journalism ethos to meet a frequent publication schedule – even more frequent than the newspaper’s traditional daily schedule.

I’m not a journalist, but this strikes me as exactly right.  Good magazine journalism contains a healthy dose of journalistic ethic without the worst excesses of the quest for innocence.

I have seldom read Weigel, but my preferred example of this blog-reporter ethos is Andy Revkin, author of the blog Dot Earth and former New York Times science reporter.  Here’s how Revkin describes his blogging:

I’ve spent a quarter century doing “conventional” journalism, and sought to create Dot Earth as an unconventional blog. It is not a spigot for my opinion. It is instead a journey that you’re invited to take with me. It is certainly not conventional journalism. To my mind, for most of the issues that will shape this century most profoundly, the old model of journalism is no longer a good fit.


Lately, I’ve been describing the kind of inquiry I do on Dot Earth as providing a service akin to that of a mountain guide after an avalanche. Follow me and I can guarantee an honest search for a safe path. This is a big contrast from the dominant journalism paradigm of the last century, crystallized in Walter Cronkite’s “ That’s the way it is” signoff.

As a regular Dot Earth reader, I’d argue that Revkin’s blogging is consistent with Henley’s vision.  This vision of journalism outlined by Henley and – I believe – practiced by Revkin strikes me as the best of both worlds.

While Revkin states above that the blog is “not a spigot for my opinion” it is not voiceless and if it is opinionated, it isn’t in the same manner as an op-ed column.  Freed from some of journalism’s more damaging constraints, it brings to bear a perspective; but one tempered by a journalistic ethic fit for the 21st century.