“Better Facebook” Browser Extension Lets Users Customize Their Facebook Experience

Facebook’s service is designed to be simple and intuitive enough for everyone to use. However, some power users want more flexibility to customize their experience in ways that might be too complex for the general public. Better Facebook offers this control through a free plug-in for popular internet browsers which alters the appearance and behavior of Facebook.com.

Better Facebook can be downloaded as a user script, add-on or extension for Firefox, Chrome, Safari or Opera. When browsing Facebook with it installed, users see a Better Facebook option panel in the top navigation bar allowing them to add or remove panels from the home page, create news feed tabs housing special news feed filters, hide feed posts a user has already read, and much more. It causes the Facebook home page to take a few extra seconds to load, but doesn’t result in much additional slow-down while browsing.

Developer Profile

Matt Kruse, a javascript developer for 15 years, created Better Facebook in November of 2009 as a off-time creative outlet because there were elements of the Facebook interface that annoyed him. He disliked seeing the same news feed stories each time he logged in, so he built Better Facebook and put it up on the greasemonkey script archive Userscripts.org. He then created a deployment script that converts the greasemonkey script into versions for other browsers. The project interested him because it was so challenging to reverse-engineer Facebook, and he thought others without his extensive javascript background wouldn’t be able to do it. Kruse runs the project on the side while maintaining a full-time job building internal web services in the financial industry.

Better Facebook is different from approved Facebook clients like Wowd because it doesn’t operate over the official APIs. Instead, it scrapes the meta-data that accompanies the html source for each Facebook webpage which identifies its unique ID, the type of post, and which users are included. By calling a specific URL –the one called when you start typing in the “Search” box that populates the search matches dropdown– Better Facebook can retrieve data from the servers like the logged in user’s list of friends, Pages, and groups. To generate panels like “Group Activity” on the home page, it loads that buried Facebook page in an iframe. When Facebook changes its interface code, it can cause errors on Better Facebook; in these cases, Kruse reverse-engineers the code and releases a patch.

Better Facebook now has roughly 30,000 daily users who help Kruse by notifying him of bugs, sending in screenshots of changes to Facebook, and in some cases assisting to debug code. After 4 days of using Better Facebook, users see a pop of explaining the genesis of the product and asking for a donation, which about 0.5% of users have given.

Product Info

Better Facebook has three main types of features and many minor options.

Alterations to the appearance of the home page surface content otherwise buried behind multiple clicks. Users can pin the notifications inbox to the home page so it is always open and visible. Most Recent can be permanently set as one’s default news feed, and right sidebar panels like Get Connected or Suggestions can be removed or replaced with ones that show updates to your groups or profile edits made by friends.

Users can opt to have “Mark Read” buttons placed by every news feed story which hide or gray out the story when clicked. This allows users to prevent themselves from seeing the same story each time they log in to Facebook. This is especially useful in conjunction with the standard Top News feed as posts in this feed often remain for multiple days.

The most complex feature of Better Facebook is the ability to create custom news feeds streams of specific content. Users can select authors or applications, story types, and included keywords and have stories that match those parameters hidden or moved to their own news feed tab. For instance, you could create a tab showing any post that includes the word “tonight” or move all stories from Cafe World, FarmVille, and Mafia Wars to your own custom “Zynga Games” tab. These options help users control what they see in their feeds without having to mute an author entirely.

Kruse says that Better Facebook doesn’t allow users to hide advertisements or silently make actions on Facebook by automatically removing notification of the action from a user’s mini-feed. Feed Filter, a fellow Facebook-altering user script, received a cease-and-desist letter from Facebook for including these features, so Kruse has purposefully left out this kind of functionality.

Creating For A Niche

As the only person behind Better Facebook, Matt Kruse says a large portion of his time is spent on support and debugging. Between all the browsers and their different versions, and the different beta tests Facebook quietly experiments with, there is always someone for whom a certain feature doesn’t work. This can be especially tough with slow product roll-outs, as he’ll get complaints on bugs he can’t see from his account.

Facebook users frequently post on its official help pages asking for new features, and Kruse will sometimes use their ideas in Better Facebook. For instance, many Page admins have asked for a way to receive notifications about actions taken on their Page, so Kruse plans to add that in a future release. His next big goal is make it easier for users to set a friend list as a distribution parameter for a status update, something Facebook also may be working on for an update to friend lists.

Facebook needs to concentrate on creating a service for hundreds of millions of people. It shouldn’t feel threatened by this type of browser extension unless its causing significant server strain, privacy concerns, or misrepresentation of impression counts to advertisers. Overall, Better Facebook offers nitty-gritty customization for the few people who really want it.