At f8, Facebook Developers Could Get a Smarter Way to Structure Their News Feed Stories

While Facebook product launches tend to get the most speculation before the f8 developer conference  – there are 750 million users who care, after all — the company has often used the event to push grand presentations that instead target developers.

That trend may be the case again next Thursday, we’re hearing from a trusted source with some knowledge of what the company has planned.

Developers might be getting new access to Facebook’s news feed, building off of the graph API that Facebook presented at last year’s f8. They’d be able to provide new structure to the information they share into the news feed, allowing Facebook’s news feed algorithm to present it to the audience most likely to find it relevant and engage with it.

Update: Facebook spokesman Jonny Thaw has also confirmed with us that “Yes, there will be platform integration” for Smart Lists. This includes the ability for developers that have been granted access to a user’s Friend Lists to publish content specifically to members of Smart Lists.

The goal is to help developers focus on sharing what’s right for users (not just their own traffic and revenue numbers), while giving the users themselves a more subtle and serendipitous experience.

With a more structured input of information, Facebook could then match content to users who’ve previously enjoyed similar content. It could also measure which developers are producing the most beloved content, based on factors like users resharing or hiding the story, and reward the developer with more visibility for their stories. That would create a more virtuous cycle where high-quality developers become more prominent, inspiring more user engagement that benefits both developers and Facebook, the company no doubt hopes.

Structured Content for Enhanced Relevancy

To understand what the changes mean, one example might be the well-understood problem of social game spam. Say a user achieves a new high score in Scrabble, an event that’s exceptional enough that they want all of their friends to know about, not just their Scrabble-playing companions. A developer could structure the story about the high score to signal to Facebook that it is of more general interest to all of a user’s friends, or maybe just the larger subgroup of friends who have played some social games on Facebook, but have not installed Scrabble.

In another situation, a local business discovery app could structure the content shared by its users such that Facebook knows its more relevant to local users. The content would then appear more prominently in the news feed to those living in the same city as the user posting it.

This isn’t just about games and apps. The change would impact anyone sharing any information to Facebook, including all of the sites that have installed the Facebook Like button and other plugins since they launched at f8 last year, or integrated with Facebook Connect (in total, Facebook’s official stats say that more than 2.5 million sites have integrated it so far).

Developers can already ask users permission to access their Friend Lists, but since they’re unique to each user, it’s difficult to know what type of audience corresponds to what list. With platform integration for Smart Lists and special lists, which Facebook confirms with us will be available in a few days, developers will be able to ask permission to target updates published by users through their apps to local friends, classmates, coworkers, family, Close friends, and Acquaintances.

Currently, the Graph API allows developers to provide a variety of more straightforward meta data about the content they publish, like the title of the info they’re sharing, a blurb, etc. But Facebook has used other signals in its news feed algorithm to figure out what to share and with whom, such as who a user’s closest friends are based on photo tags and who’s Liked a user’s previous posts.

The Context Is Right for This Launch

In the past, Facebook has taken blunter measures to fight spam, with methods such as clumping all stories from specific applications into a single thread, and hiding most stories about social games from friends who have not installed the app.

It has also taken a still-changing approach to how users make the news feed work for them. It has constantly iterated on the news feed algorithm since bringing it back a few years ago, and tested features that ask users how often they want to discover new games, or what types of content they prefer to see in the feed.

Just today, it officially launched a variety of Smart Lists and special lists – automatically created and populated lists of a user’s local friends, coworkers, and those that share other characteristics, and lists of best friends and distant contacts whose members appear more or less in the standard view of a user’s news feed. It’s probably not a coincidence that this particular launch is coming now. Users can apply the Friends Lists as news feed filters, but Facebook could allow developers target some stories to these lists as well. For example, the Scrabble high-score story could be formatted to be shared with the “Acquaintances” list, while less monumental stories would be formatted to just appear for “close friends.” That example is, to be clear, just a guess based on what our source has said.

Thinking more long-term, Facebook has steadily laid the foundation for this move over the years. The first f8, in 2007, was where the app platform was unveiled. Facebook Connect came in 2008, which started Facebook’s reach outside of the site by helping people to log in using their Facebook identities. The Graph API came at its next conference, last year. In addition to the consumer-facing social plugins and instant personalization, the company created the Open Graph protocol system for assigning web pages meta data that improves the format of news feed stories shared from them. The plugins utilizing this meta data pushed Facebook across the web. All that effort on the part of Facebook and its growing ecosystem now makes this change a natural progression.

In this context, the other big and interesting things that Facebook is rumored to be launching — a music platform that might include a scrobbling tool, a mobile web development platform, an iPad app — are more pieces of the puzzle that Facebook has been putting together. That is, making anything, from a catchy song to a popular mobile game, get the exposure it deserves to the users who want it.

The move would also aid Facebook against long-time competitor for owning and distributing the world’s information: Google. The launch of better methods for sharing quality information into Facebook could help it improve its news feed and box out Google, which is trying to move its new social alternative Google+ to the mainstream. Last year was about Facebook pushing itself out to the world via plugins, this year could be about pulling more of the world into Facebook.

Want to join us for some casual drinks, rumor and speculation the night before f8, come to the Inside Network happy hour next Wednesday at Mercury Lounge in SF. RSVP here to get a free drink on us.

Josh Constine co-authored this article.

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