I'm not going to lie: Wednesday's announcement from Facebook wasn't a huge one. The social network unveiled a moderately redesigned home page that puts the news feed even more front-and-center, and has tweaked the "fan pages" that it encourages brands to create to tap into Facebook's 175-million-strong membership.
The "streaming" nature of the revamped news feed is an obvious answer to Web users' seemingly endless thirst for instant news and opinions--I'm looking at you, Twitter. That's a pretty understandable step. So are the easier filtering controls, which make a lot of sense as Facebook members chalk up higher friends-list counts. The update that merits a bit more exploration is Facebook's decision to make its fan pages resemble, both visually and functionally, standard Facebook profiles.
Fan pages, until this point, have been a bit isolated from the rest of the site, with a disparate design and fewer ways to tap into Facebook's notorious viral-buzz machine. Now they'll have more prominence in news feeds, appearing alongside friends-list updates. That's important: Many brands are still wary of their involvement in social-media properties like Facebook, because results are still based largely on anecdotal evidence. There obviously isn't yet a way for Facebook to prove that making brand pages look more like member profiles can boost a company's profit margin, but it's a start.
The redesigned fan pages are also going to be more palatable to public figures, celebrities, and other individuals who, for one reason or another, want their presence on Facebook to be one part social and one part promotional. Among the launch partners for the new Facebook Pages are Olympic champion Michael Phelps and actor-turned-entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher, for example. It effectively provides a way for them to network with more fans while skirting the 5,000-profile limit on a friends list proper.
They'll probably like it. Indeed, in the audience of Facebook's presentation, excited uber-blogger Robert Scoble raised the question of when he'd be able to take the 5,000 friend requests that he can't approve (because he's famously hit the friends-list limit) and turn them into fans. (Patience, Scoble, patience.)
More speculatively, the revamped news feed in conjunction with more news-feed-friendly brand pages makes it possible for the site's home page to display a whole lot more than just status messages and photo albums. This is another step toward Facebook wanting to be the ultimate personal home page: if the brand pages work out the way they're supposed to, my news feed could show me not only my friends' St. Patrick's Day party photos but also headlines from news outlets I read, concert dates from my favorite bands, and ski condition reports from my destinations of choice. Theoretically, it can already do that, but the redesign will make it an easier sell to on-the-fence brands.
With The New York Times and CNN among Facebook's flagship partners for the new fan pages, expect news consumption to be front and center very soon. The issue down the road: when it comes to an everything-in-one-place "stream," how much will be too much?