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8.4 Facebook Feeds—Ebola for Data Flows

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the concept of feeds, why users rebelled against Facebook feeds, and why users eventually embraced this feature.
  2. Recognize the role of feeds in viral promotions, catalyzing innovation, and supporting rapid organizing.

While the authenticity and trust offered by Facebook was critical, offering News Feeds concentrated and released value from the social graph. With feeds, each time a user performs an activity in Facebook—makes a friend, uploads a picture, joins a group—the feed blasts this information to all of your friends in a reverse chronological list that shows up right when they next log on. An individual user’s activities are also listed on their profile. Get a new job, move to a new city, read a great article, have a pithy quote—post it to Facebook—the feed picks it up, and the world of your Facebook friends will get an update. Corporations love feeds, too! “Like” a firm on Facebook and the firm can post messages to your news feed, where you can “Like” new messages they send out, comment on them, and share the messages virally.

Feeds are perhaps the linchpin of Facebook’s ability to strengthen and deliver user value from the social graph, but for a brief period of time it looked like feeds would kill the company. News Feeds were launched on September 5, 2006, just as many of the nation’s undergrads were arriving on campus. Feeds reflecting any Facebook activity (including changes to the relationship status) became a sort of gossip page splashed right when your friends logged in. To many, feeds were first seen as a viral blast of digital nosiness—a release of information they hadn’t consented to distribute widely.

And in a remarkable irony, user disgust over the News Feed ambush offered a whip-crack demonstration of the power and speed of the feed virus. Facebook protest groups were formed on Facebook itself, and every student who, for example, joined a group named Students Against Facebook News Feed, had this fact blasted to their friends (along with a quick link where friends, too, could click to join the group). Hundreds of thousands of users mobilized against the firm in just twenty-four hours. It looked like Zuckerberg’s creation had turned on him, Frankenstein style.

The first official Facebook blog post on the controversy came off as a bit condescending (never a good tone to use when your customers feel that you’ve wronged them). “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you,” wrote Zuckerberg on the evening of September 5. The next post, three days after the News Feed launch, was much more contrite (“We really messed this one up,” he wrote). In an open letter, Zuckerberg apologized for the surprise, explaining how users could opt out of feeds. The tactic worked, and the controversy blew over.F. Vogelstein, “How Mark Zuckerberg Turned Facebook into the Web’s Hottest Platform,” Wired, September 6, 2007. The ability to stop personal information from flowing into the feed stream was just enough to stifle critics, and as it turns out, a lot of people really liked the feeds and found them useful. It soon became clear that if you wanted to use the Web to keep track of your social life and contacts, Facebook was the place to be. Not only did feeds not push users away, by the start of the next semester subscribers had nearly doubled! Facebook continues to refine feeds in several ways, including refining sharing into categories that include “Top Stories” that the site thinks you’ll be most interested in, “Recent News,” a “Ticker” for lighter content (e.g. music, games, location updates), and a “Timeline” that offers a sort of digital scrapbook of content that a user has shared online.

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook feeds foster the viral spread of information and activity.
  • Feeds were initially unwanted by many Facebook users. Feeds themselves helped fuel online protests against the feed feature.
  • Today feeds are considered one of the most vital, value-adding features on Facebook, and the concept has been widely copied by other social networking sites.
  • Users often misperceive technology and have difficulty in recognizing an effort’s value (as well as its risks). They have every right to be concerned and protective of their privacy. It is the responsibility of firms to engage users on new initiatives and to protect user privacy. Failure to do so risks backlash.

Questions and Exercises

  1. What is the “linchpin” of Facebook’s ability to strengthen and deliver user-value from the social graph?
  2. How did users first react to feeds? What could Facebook have done to better manage the launch?
  3. How do you feel about Facebook feeds? Have you ever been disturbed by information about you or someone else that has appeared in the feed? Did this prompt action? Why or why not?
  4. Visit Facebook and experiment with privacy settings. What kinds of control do you have over feeds and data sharing? Is this enough to set your mind at ease? Did you know these settings existed before being prompted to investigate features?
  5. What other Web sites are leveraging features that mimic Facebook feeds? Do you think these efforts are successful or not? Why?