How to Take Back Your Facebook News Feed

In December, Facebook announced yet another tweak to the News Feed. This time, the social network would begin prioritizing “meaningful” conversations between friends and family over stories from publishers, brands, and businesses. If this all sounds familiar to you, that’s because Facebook has made a number of similar changes in the past.

I was skeptical about the latest shift. Over the last decade, my News Feed has increasingly begun to clog with life updates from hundreds of people I haven’t seen in years. Meanwhile, my closest friends—like many people’s—share less on the platform than ever. After Facebook’s announcement, I deleted the app from my phone, less in protest than in resignation to it having become more of a phone book than a social network.

Going nuclear seemed hasty though, especially given the thousands of hours I’d invested in Facebook over the years. It also occurred to me that the social network—more so than platforms like Instagram and Twitter—gives its users significant control over what they see in the News Feed, including several levers I’d never bothered to pull. So rather than quit outright, I decided to conduct an experiment.

Over the course of about 10 days, I used Facebook’s built-in features—as well as several third-party tools—to see if I could make the platform fun and “meaningful” again. Some of it worked, but a lot of it didn’t. Mostly it was a reminder that you have more power over your News Feed than Facebook often lets on—for better or worse.

Phase One: See First

My first change was to prioritize pages and profiles to “see first” in my feed. When you click News Feed on the left-hand side of the Facebook desktop site, an option to Edit Preferences* will display. The first option is Prioritize who to see first. I chose a handful of news sites I like reading, some of my close friends, and my boyfriend. Facebook only allows users to choose 30 people and pages to see first; I quickly used all the allocated spots.

The more years I spend on Facebook, the less inclined I am to post weird memes, inside jokes, and any actual feelings.

To some degree, that one change did help my News Feed become more relevant. After I set those preferences, Facebook would usually greet me with a post from my past via the fairly creepy “On This Day” feature, then an ad, then a smattering of posts from The New York Times and other publications I chose. I still didn't see much from my close friends because, well, they don’t often post on Facebook, a major reason my News Feed felt so irrelevant to begin with.

The more years I spend on Facebook, the less inclined I am to post weird memes, inside jokes, and any actual feelings. Same with my friends. That’s because the breadth of people who might see that content has become wider. If I post a political opinion, it’s possible my aunt, my boyfriend’s cousin, and an awkward years-ago Tinder date will see it. Facebook lets users tailor who can see the content they post, but adjusting those settings feels tedious when I can just head to more intimate places like Instagram or Snapchat instead.

A recent report from The Information suggests I’m not alone. Overall sharing on Facebook fell 5.5 percent from the middle of 2014 to the middle of 2015, according to their analysis. That might seem like a small drop, but people shared four times fewer “personal updates”—like thoughts about their lives—during the same period.

But the news organizations I chose to “see first” are posting plenty. At the point, my News Feed led now off with noticeably more articles and videos from publishers I actually like, which wasn't so bad, especially since a side effect of the latest algorithm upheaval was burying them further down.

Phase Two: Tell Them What You Want

I decided next to focus my efforts on the algorithm itself: I began giving Facebook feedback on nearly everything it showed me. It's possible to try and brute force your News Feed by, say, liking every single thing you see. But I wanted to see if I could instead tweak it into something more agreeable.

Some of that just meant your standard liking and commenting. But trying to tell the platform overlords what you want can also get a little more involved. If you click the three dots in the upper-right-hand corner of any Facebook post (including ads) you’ll see a series of options about how you want to respond to it. They include saving the post, unfollowing the person, or putting them on “snooze,” meaning they won’t show up in your timeline for a month.

Facebook

There’s an option to “Give feedback on this post,” which only lets you tell Facebook that a post violated its Community Guidelines, meaning it contains nudity, violence, hate speech, or something else against the rules. You can’t tell Facebook, or any platform, that you found a post simply upsetting, irrelevant, or boring. You can, however, “hide” a post, which presumably lets Facebook know that you want to see less content like it.

I “liked” articles I had clicked on, “reacted” with love to distant friends’ profile pictures, and reacted “wow” to shocking political news. It’s hard to know how Facebook processed all this feedback, if at all. My News Feed basically stayed the same for the most part, even though I engaged far more with the content it fed me. Sometimes, it seemed like Facebook wasn’t—or couldn’t—process what I was telling it at all.

For example, I earlier had chosen my best friend to be in my “see first,” group on Facebook. She lives nearly 800 miles away in Chicago, which Facebook knows. Yet my News Feed keeps flooding with posts letting me know she had RSVPed to events—in Chicago. The first time this happened, I “hid” the post from my feed. But another event popped up the next day. Facebook had two signals to listen to: On one hand, I had explicitly asked to see her posts first. On the other, I told it that I didn’t need to know she was attending a vegan food meet-up a 12-hour drive away. It seems to have ignored the latter.

Phase Three: Browser Extensions

Since Facebook wasn’t getting the hint, I decided this time to entrust my News Feed to someone else. I downloaded Social Fixer, a Chrome extension that promises that it’s “filled with features to make your Facebook experience better.” The tool essentially allows you to customize nearly every aspect of the social network. At first, I really liked it.

For example, Social Fixer prevented me from mindlessly scrolling. When I loaded more than 50 posts, it stopped Facebook from feeding me more, and instead a message appeared asking whether I actually wanted to keep looking at my News Feed. You can also use the extension to hide whatever portions of Facebook you’d like to leave behind. I decided to delete the notoriously fake-news plagued “Trending” sidebar from my homepage, and quickly forgot it was ever there in the first place.

Social Fixer

Social Fixer’s premier feature, however, is letting you create filters to block certain posts from showing up in the News Feed. Those include pre-designed options, like “Election/Politics 2017,” which purportedly removes any posts related to US politics. You can even filter out Facebook’s own features, like the occasionally creepy “People You May Know.”

Social Fixer’s filters work great, but it’s hard to know exactly what you don’t want to see. For example, when Facebook started prioritizing video content last year, my News Feed filled up with viral videos from brands and publishers. I found myself intoxicated by strange cooking videos and cute animal clips. I didn’t really enjoy watching the videos when I thought about it, but I spent a lot of time consuming them anyway. Which means Facebook kept feeding them to me.

This is what makes Social Fixer hard: I’m not sure I—or most people on Facebook—know exactly what they will spend time looking at online given the chance. Using Social Fixer's filters is difficult if you don't know what's bothering you, or what you want more of, before actually seeing it. Ultimately, I declined to use very many of them. A manicured but entirely predictable News Feed may be just as bad as one that feels out of control.

Social Fixer did help improve my News Feed somewhat, but what really made the difference was another Chrome extension: AdBlock Plus. Predictably, clearing my News Feed of ads made for a much better experience. I was shocked at how many ads—especially for the same companies—had actually populated my News Feed. For months, I've been haunted by companies like Everlane and Glossier, which ostensibly target the same young, female-identifying, urban-dwelling people over and over again. Blocking them cleared out room in my News Feed for news sources, funny meme pages, and even some posts from actual friends.

Phase Four: Let Me Forget

"Without Facebook I wouldn't hear from my high school friends very much," Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said in an interview with Axios last year. "Facebook increases my awareness of them and their views."

But knowing about my high school friends’ views is often what makes my Facebook experience miserable. So my final step was to prune my News Feed of my past. The other day an acquaintance shared a racist story about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict into my News Feed. It took about a minute of profile-picture stalking to register that I knew the poster from a Spanish class I took in high school. I unfollowed him.

In fact, Facebook has a tool that lets you easily unfollow people and Pages in your News Feed. It even arranges profiles by how many times their posts show up, meaning you can axe the most prolific posters first if you want to. I started using Facebook’s unfollow feature a couple of years ago, but never extensively until now.

Facebook

Unfollowing, I would argue, is one of the great pleasures left on the internet. It’s at once incredibly satisfying and not at all confrontational, because the person you removed from your News Feed isn’t notified, and you don't delete them as a friend outright. But you do push them out of your brain, which is more consequential than it might seem.

I also discovered that Facebook keeps track of when you unfollow people, and gives you the opportunity to invite them back into your feed. It informed me, for example, that I had unfollowed a man I'll call Joe, whom I had met at a couple of concerts when I was 17.

Unfollowing, I would argue, is one of the great pleasures left on the internet.

When I saw Joe’s profile picture displayed on the feature, I realized I had forgotten about him entirely. For years before I unfollowed him, Joe was a constant, passive figure in my life, at least on Facebook, even though we had never been close. He frequently posted long, personal updates about his job, girlfriend, and family, which I happily consumed. I don’t remember the exact day that I unfollowed Joe, but in retrospect I can see the tiny, News Feed-shaped space he had occupied inside of my skull.

As part of this experiment, I began to unfollow all the other Joes in my feed, to the point now where I am rubbing up against a difficult question: Who should I keep? Most of my close friends don’t post anything at all, but dozens of people I talk to only occasionally—but am still fond of—post all the time.

On the internet, we don’t have any real mechanisms for growing apart. If you’re not in the mood to reminisce, it’s hard to know what scrolling is supposed to be for. Facebook encourages us to collect everyone we meet throughout our lives, but hasn't given much instruction for what to do after we've friended them. I ultimately settled on cutting around 15 people from my feed.

Today, my Facebook News Feed on desktop has no ads. The Trending bar has disappeared, along with some egregiously annoying people. The space they left has quickly filled with dozens more people I haven’t spoken to in years. I imagine this process will continue, until the day I decide to unfollow almost everyone.

News Feed You Can Use

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