“Fortune Favors The Bold” reads a 20-foot-tall poster in the room where Facebook unveiled its redesigned news feed. It’s possibly the most looked-at page on the Internet, and if we don’t like the changes, traffic and ad revenue could plummet. Despite a slow rollout where it will watch for our reactions and make tweaks, Facebook’s never put it all on the line like this.
Panicked erupted when Facebook first overhauled its homepage with the launch of the news feed in 2006. But in the end, Facebook won that bet. We all realized the feed didn’t violate our privacy. It just collected what we could already see on Facebook, and we discovered that constant stream of information was highly addictive. Time-on-site shot up and the social network grew into the powerhouse we know today.
Now Facebook’s trying to pull off that feat again, but the stakes are much higher. It’s got 1 billion users, thousands of third-party businesses depending on it, fickle advertisers, and Wall Street nagging it to make more money. Luckily it’s learned a lot in the last seven years. It doesn’t shock and awe us with simultaneous product changes. A system called Gatekeeper lets it roll out new features to tiny fractions of its user base so it can bug test and gauge reactions before pushing further.
Still, the news feed redesign isn’t like Open Graph, Timeline or Graph Search. Those are comparatively niche products. Mark Zuckerberg and his squad can experiment all they want with apps like Poke or money-makers like Gifts, but it’s the news feed where we actually spend our time on Facebook. It’s the homepage, the main screen of its mobile apps, and the reason we come back so many times a day.
The flap of a butterfly’s wings on the feed’s design spins tornadoes through our ingrained behaviors. Humans are inherently averse to change, and, good or bad, we grumble. Facebook doesn’t care. Or, more accurately, it’s okay ruffling a few feathers if it thinks it knows better than we do. The original news feed launch was grand proof of that. One of its early privacy scandals, Beacon, turned out to be just a little too far ahead of its time. Years later practically the same feature emerged as Open Graph frictionless sharing, and people accepted it.