How a controversial feature grew into one of the most influential products on the Internet
There are two very important rooms that will help determine the future of the Facebook News Feed and, by extension, the way more than a billion people communicate. One is in a corner of Facebook’s new 430,000-foot, Frank Gehry-designed building in Menlo Park, California. The other is in a nondescript office park in Knoxville, Tennessee.
At Facebook headquarters in California, about 20 engineers and data scientists meet every Tuesday in the “John Quincy Adding Machine” room—“Abraham Linksys” and “Dwight DVD Eisenhower” are nearby. They’re tasked with assessing the billions of likes, comments and clicks Facebook users make each day to divine ways to make us like, comment and click more. In Knoxville, a group of 30 contract workers sit in a room full of desktop computers, getting paid to surf Facebook. They are tasked with scrolling through their News Feeds to assess how well the site places stories relative to their personal preferences. Their assessments, as well as ratings from about 700 other reviewers around the United States, are later fed back to the team in California, all in the service of improving Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, the software that delivers personalized streams of content.
This is a relatively new vision for how to keep users hooked on Facebook—by asking users themselves. In 2014 when the program launched, the social network had already tuned the News Feed into a powerful engine, sucking up our time and pumping out ad revenue. Nearly a billion people around the world now look at Facebook daily. The company runs the second-most-popular website in the world and the most-used mobile app in the United States. American users spend nearly as much time on the site per day (39 minutes) as they do socializing with people face-to-face (43 minutes). That has turned Facebook into an online advertising behemoth that generated $12.5 billion in revenue in 2014.