May 27, 2014 · 2 minutes

The News Feed might become useful again.

Facebook today announced that it is encouraging developers to remove auto-posting features, which share updates whenever something happens in an application, from their software. The company has already removed the feature from Instagram, and the Verge reports that similar updates from Pinterest, Spotify, and other services will stop being so prevalent in News Feed.

The change was explained in a post on Facebook's blog:

We’ve found that stories people choose to explicitly share from third party apps are typically more interesting and get more engagement in News Feed than stories shared from third party apps without explicit action. We’ve also heard that people often feel surprised or confused by stories that are shared without taking an explicit action. In the coming months, we will continue to prioritize explicitly shared stories from apps in News Feed over implicitly shared stories.
This confirms what Facebook users already knew: scrolling through someone's entire life, from the images they've saved to Pinterest to the songs they've listened to on Spotify, is boring. Part of Facebook's charm is seeing what's happening in your friend's lives, but even the most rabid voyeurs have their limits. Seeing that your friend is streaming "Let It Go" from the "Frozen" soundtrack for the fifth time that day seems like a pretty good place to set that particular bar.

Removing these updates from the News Feed could also reduce the sensory overload associated with its current iteration. Facebook said in August 2013 that its average user can see around 1,500 stories each day, creating a cacophonous stream of information through which only the most dedicated of users will attempt to wade. Fewer, better stories will probably be preferred.

Mark Zuckerberg wants people to think of Facebook as a local newspaper. While that might seem like a strange metaphor -- especially after Facebook's product director criticized the media last week -- it's actually more sensible than some think. As I wrote last year, when Zuckerberg first used the metaphor to describe his social network turned digital juggernaut,

Zuckerberg’s newspaper metaphor doesn’t work if you consider a newspaper to be nothing more than paper and ink. But if you think of the newspaper as the medium that allows people to build a sense of community, find out what is happening in the immediate world around them, and learn about the people they care about, it’s hard to think of Facebook as anything but a local paper.
That can't happen if the News Feed is filled with bullshit updates that no-one cares about. Updates shared because someone happened to tap a button within an application or reach a new milestone in a game don't pass that test. (We can argue about whether or not most updates many users type themselves pass that test another time.) It's no surprise that Facebook wants to make the News Feed better -- it's a surprise that it took so damned long.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]