Today, Facebook promised to put the news back in its News Feed.
At a press event at headquarters, Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly used the phrase "personalized newspaper" to describe the direction of the site's core feature. And the Feed's new features arguably make Facebook a better way to stay on top of current events than ever before.
With a dedicated tab for everyone you're following and a renewed focus on photos, Facebook is aiming to create the kind of real-time information network that has made Twitter the top destination for news junkies.
That hasn't been possible before, not least because of Facebook's opaque, algorithmic way of showing you stories. As Nick Bilton detailed this week in The New York Times, reaching followers has become more difficult in recent months as Facebook has started encouraging publishers to pay to "promote" their posts. The result is that anyone who follows a publisher like CNET might not see the majority of its posts, even though they've asked to.
Contrast that with Twitter, which displays every tweet from everyone a user follows. That can make the stream difficult to keep up with, particularly if you follow more than a couple hundred people. But at least a user can trust that tweets will appear in the stream as they are written -- and not after an algorithm decides they are worthy of being delivered.
And so the biggest change Facebook announced today, from the perspective of publishers and the people who want to read them on Facebook, is the "following" tab. According to executives at the event, the tab will show "every single post" from the people and publishers you subscribe to. If true, that will go a long way toward building trust in Facebook as a home for breaking news.
Meanwhile, news should look better on Facebook than it ever has, thanks to larger photos, expanded snippets of text from the articles that are shared, and their more prominent presentation on the page. Publishers have suffered through Facebook's algorithmic changes because the site can still drive significant traffic to their pages -- far more than the average post on Twitter or other social networks. If Facebook's changes make it easier for them to reach their fans, they may develop a new appreciation for what the network can offer.
But competitors are gunning for their attention, too. Facebook's changes come as Twitter has moved to make its own stream more visual. Tweets have transformed from a simple string of 140 characters to "envelopes" for all sorts of things, including photos, music, and article snippets.
And while it far lags both of them in mind share, Google+ continues to polish its design in a way that puts photos at the forefront. Yesterday, the company rolled out a new look that includes larger cover photos, enhanced profiles, and a new tab of its own (for place reviews). During the CNET live blog today, many readers remarked on the updated News Feed's resemblance to Google+, which also features a narrow left rail with big icons and huge photos in the central feed.
So yes, Facebook is trying to become "the best personalized newspaper." But it's not the only one. News is a major pillar of all the main social networks, and its role on each of them is only expanding. Facebook, Twitter, and Google started their social networks for very different reasons. But as the months go on, they're looking more and more alike.