Why the Facebook Top Stories Sort Makes People Angry

If you’re one of the 1.28 billion people who use Facebook, you’ve probably noticed that there are a few different ways to sort your news feed. My favorite sort is “most recent,” which arranges my friends’ activity in reverse chronological order. I can browse starting from the newest activity and scroll down until I reach the first familiar post, which indicates I’m fully up to date. Facebook also has a sort called “Top Stories” which uses an algorithm to determine which of your friends’ posts should surface to the top of your feed. My guess is that the algorithm accounts for factors such as likes and comments on a post, as well as originality (i.e. a Facebook-originated status will carry more weight than a link from another site).

For a user like myself, with a only few hundred friends (only!), the Top Stories sort is sub-optimal. It leads to a lot of repetition in the stories in my feed, because the same item might show up at the top each time I log in. My guess is that for people with thousands of friends, like many college students and Facebook employees, the Top Stories sort is useful because it helps to cull some of the less interesting items from a busy feed and prioritize only the most noteworthy items. But for me, with my fairly limited Facebook network, this sort of curation assistance is not necessary.

If it were easy to choose my feed sort, all would be well. But Facebook has an interest in getting people to use its proprietary feed sort as much as possible. As a result, the default feed sort is Top Stories on both the web and mobile interfaces. Worse, the app reverts to the default setting each time you open it. So if I tell my app to sort by Most Recent, it will only do so for that particular use session. The next time I open the app, I have to re-select my preference. Worse still, the latest Facebook mobile app update makes the Most Recent sort more difficult to find and use. Instead of being accessible from the main app page, I now have to click into settings and scroll down to find Most Recent.

I’m not alone in finding this user experience frustrating. A lot of the people in my news feed complain about the Top Stories sort as well. By and large, these people are like me in the sense that they have relatively small Facebook networks, and are not likely to benefit from the advantages of the Top Stories feed.

In addition to the obvious reasons why Facebook’s emphasis on the Top Stories feed is annoying, it also goes against the principles of good motivational design. One aspect of motivational design is providing users with choice within the technology ecosystem. This choice is usually constrained to some extent–for example, it makes sense that you would not be able to pull in Google Plus feeds to your Facebook news feed. But by consistently defaulting to Top Stories even when users have indicated a preference for a different feed, Facebook is essentially communicating that it does not value its users’ choices. The implicit communication is that my decision to sort by Most Recent is inferior to Facebook’s preference that I use Top Stories. On a psychological level, Facebook is reducing my motivation to use its services by failing to support my need for autonomy.

What really interests me about this is that despite my immense and daily frustration with this issue, which is at the core of my Facebook experience, I won’t stop using Facebook. It’s one of the most convenient ways to connect with certain people I value, which outweighs the negative aspects of the UX. To go back to motivational design, Facebook helps support my need for relatedness by connecting me with other people to a strong enough degree that I am motivated to use it despite its failure to support my need for autonomy. It goes to show how motivational design provides multiple levers you can use to engage your users, and how you might succeed in supporting some universal basic needs while doing a worse job supporting others.

I would still really love it if Facebook let me default to Most Recent in my news feed. What do you say, guys?

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