How Facebook (and soon Instagram) prioritize what you see

By Larry Magid

Facebook-owned Instagram will change the order of the posts people see “to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.” In this regard, it’s following in the footsteps of its parent company, which made a similar change several years ago.

I’m not sure when and exactly how Instagram will implement this change nor whether they will let users override it, but I can tell you about Facebook’s system and how you can control what you see.

If you log onto Facebook and look at your News Feed you may notice that posts from your friends and the people you follow may not be in chronological order. What’s more, you may not even see some of your friends’ posts unless you scroll down very far.

Facebook uses an algorithm to rank the posts you see based on what the company thinks interests you the most. In a post, the company says that “the stories that show in your News Feed are influenced by your connections and activity on Facebook,” arguing that it exposes you to “more stories that interest you from friends you interact with the most.” The algorithm considers comments and likes a post receives and the type of “story it is” such as a photo, video or status update.

Facebook keeps track of the types of stories you click on and even how long you look at certain types of stories and uses this data to help determine what you’re most likely to see. The company, I’m told, is constantly studying and tweaking these algorithms as it learns more about how and why people engage with each other.

I know a lot of people who are annoyed by this and if you’re one of them, you can change your preferences. Facebook makes this a little confusing with two separate menu items. To change the order from “top stories” to “most recent” from a web browser, first click Home in the blue bar on top of the screen and then click on the down arrow next to “News Feed” in the left column of your screen and select most recent.

The other menu item is News Feed Preferences, which you’ll find by clicking on the down arrow in the upper right of your screen. From there you can prioritize whose posts to see first, so for example, you can make sure that posts from specific people are at the top of your News Feed. You can also unfollow or hide specific people. They are still your friends and you can see what they post if you go to their page but you won’t see their posts on your News Feed. This is a perfect way to avoid having to put up with those inane posts from that crazy or annoying friend or relative that you may love but don’t really want to hear from. The people you’ve prioritized or unfollowed won’t know, so no worries about them thinking you’re either avoiding or stalking them.

Twitter recently announced a similar optional change so that recent tweets “you’re most likely to care about” will appear at the top of your timeline in reverse chronological order. Other tweets will be displayed just below those, also in reverse chronological order. In a blog post, Twitter’s Senior Engineering Manager Mike Jahr wrote “We’ve already seen that people who use this new feature tend to retweet and tweet more, creating more live commentary and conversations.”

You’ll find illustrated instructions for both Facebook and Twitter settings, including for mobile devices, at

A lot of people expressed frustration when Facebook changed the default from chronological to “top stories,” and I’m hearing the same complaints again now that Instagram plans to make a similar change. I’ve also heard complaints about Twitter’s latest move.

My first reaction was to join the chorus of complainers. After all, change is sometimes hard to adapt to, especially when you are comfortable with the status quo. Yet, these companies are constantly experimenting with new ways of presenting information and while they don’t always get it right, they are getting better over time at figuring out how to increase engagement. I’ve come to welcome that assistance in ordering the posts and Tweets I see. I’m sure I miss some important posts, but without any prioritization I would miss a lot more because of the number of people and organizations I follow on both services.

Without some type of prioritization, my experience on Twitter and Facebook feels a bit random but with it I feel that I’m hearing more from people I care most about.

That’s not to say that I’m not interested in hearing from a broader group of people — I am — but I do need a bit of help to make sure I don’t miss important updates from close friends, colleagues and family members.

What’s important is that these services give users a choice. Just because I’ve come around to appreciating their prioritization doesn’t mean that it’s right for you.

Although I rarely eat there, I’ve always been a big fan of those former “Have it Your Way” Burger King commercials and urge social media companies to give users choices, even as they beef-up their services.