New “Unread Messages” and “Photo Memories” Features Suggest Facebook Activity to Users

Looking to reengage users with content they’ve missed, Facebook has just introduced new “Unread Messages” and “Photo Memories” boxes. When users are browsing the home page’s left-hand navigation tabs for events, photos, friends, and groups, they’ll see them on the right-hand column. The boxes show users what the names suggest: Facebook messages that users haven’t read, and photos from months gone by.

[Update on 10/20/10: People who you are no longer in a relationship with on Facebook will stop appearing in your photos. More details here.]

By drawing attention to interesting past content, Facebook is diverging from the strictly chronological, newest-at-the-top format that underlies much of their user experience. We spotted a related photos and messages experiment in February.

Facebook messages, from business deals to romantic courtship, depend on both users consistently reading and replying to their messages.  However, as the medium is only a few years old, norms regarding acceptable response times are still forming. Combined with inbox spam and the distracting nature of Facebook, message threads frequently break down before they are formally concluded.  The messages dropdown on the homepage only shows the 5 most recent messages, making it easy to forget about a vital conversation if a flurry of announcements follows it. “Unread Messages” seeks to awaken these threads by displaying their subject line, sender’s name and profile picture, and a link to the message while users browse other parts of the site. It also makes the “Mark as Unread” button on the full screen of the inbox more useful, because users can mark messages unread so they can see what amount to reminders of them in the “Unread Messages” box.

Currently the feature brings up both personal messages, but also mass group and event announcements that users may have intentionally left unread. By focusing “Unread Messages” on user-to-user conversations, Facebook could increase return visits, time-on-site, and solidify themselves as a venue for highly-sensitive interaction, pulling these exchanges away from mediums like email.

“Photo Memories” functions like a snippet of the news feed that culls content from months ago instead of days.  The feature displays a photograph, its caption (or the album title if there is no caption), when it was added, the name of a friend tagged in the photo, and how many additional friends are tagged in the photo. It can also display photos tagged with Pages a user has liked. Similar to the “Reconnect With…” boxes, an ‘x’ can be clicked to replace the current with a new photo memory.

The algorithm that chooses which photo to display selects for those uploaded between 6 months and more than a year ago, weighted towards photos added 10 months ago from what we can tell. Similar to the news feed, it selects for photos that have received numerous likes and comments, and in which friends you’ve interacted with recently are tagged. Akin to how people decorate their homes with the best photos and paintings, not just the most recent, Facebook is acknowledging that certain content is timeless. The feature also helps illustrate the site’s long-term value, giving users perspective on how they are building a history, as well as a community, on Facebook. If this feature expands to display other types of content like notes and status updates, expect the pleasant experience of being reminded of your networks’ best poems, jokes, links, and memories.

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