Facebook’s New Subscribe Button Allows Assymetrical Following of Non-Friends’ Public Updates

Facebook today launches the Subscribe button – an option for users to receive the publicly visible updates published by non-friends. Similar to Twitter, this assymetrical following (sometimes known as asynchronous) capability will expand the types of relationships users can have on Facebook beyond friendship, allowing users to conveniently view content in news feed from people they don’t know but are interested in.

The Subscribe button also appears on the profile of friends, and gives users options to control the volume and types of updates they see from someone in their news feed. This will allow users to select to only receive or hide from their news feed a friend’s major life events, status updates, photos and videos, and games content. This last option could help serious gamers hide all non-game content from people they met while playing but aren’t friends with. However, it will also allow users to shun games content published by friends, which could hurt growth rates for games and applications.

Until today, there were only two types of relationships one could have on Facebook: symmetrical friendship where both users confirmed they wanted to see each other’s content in the news feed, and Liking of Pages where one user chose to see updates in the news feed from a public entity such as a business. Many thought Facebook would have already launched such a feature. However, the company appears to finally be ready to expand its scope after implementing an increase in the transparency and ease of publishing to specific audiences including the public.

Assymetrical Following Through the Subscribe Button

Now, users will have the ability to opt in allowing subscribers. This places a Subscribe button on their profile which non-friends can click to begin viewing the updates they publish with the privacy setting of public. The user being subscribed to doesn’t have to confirm each connection, and won’t see content of their subscribers in the news feed.

Technically, the Subscribe button just makes consumption of public updates more convenient and its opt in, so there aren’t any serious privacy concerns. Someone could already visit the profile of a non-friend and see their public updates, but now they’ll be sent them through the news feed. Those opting into subscriptions can select to allow or disallow comments by subscribers, and activate notifications about gaining new subscribers.

Assymetrical following will create a middle ground between personal profiles for private updating and Facebook Pages that are totally public. If a user has opted in to allowing subscriptions and they reject a friend request from someone, that person will automatically become a subscriber. The option should be especially helpful to self-promoters who’ve hit Facebook’s 5,000 friend limit. If users amass a subscriber base and later want to become a Page with update targeting, applications, and analytics, Facebook has confirmed that they’ll be able to convert their subscribers into Likes.

The Subscribe button puts Facebook in direct competition with Twitter, as well as Google+, which are both built around assymetrical following. Journalists, thought leaders, celebrities, or anyone who chooses to publish publicly will be able to amass a subscriber base, gain more impressions for their posted content, and engage with strangers by tapping into Facebook’s enormous user base and familiar discussion tools. Facebook’s Director of Product Naomi Gleit tells us “We want you to be able to broaden your conversations — comment and interact with people who are outside of your friend circle.”

Refining the News Feed Presence of Friends

If users are already friends with someone, they’ll see a Subscribe button on their profile with a drop-down allowing them to receive all, most, or only important updates by that person in the news feed, as well as select the types of stories they see. Previously, the only way users could influence the presence of a friend in the news feed was to completely hide all their updates. Now they can see more or less of them using the new Close Friends and Acquaintances Friend Lists, or by using the Subscribe button.

These new options will add user preference to Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm for determining what’s relevant to surface in the news feed. Users will no longer have to suffer the annoying stories about high scores or new items earned by their little brother in social games. Another example Gleit cited was that if a user has an acquaintance who is a great photographer, they can select to just see their photo updates, not status updates about their daily lives.

Users will no longer have to use multiple services in order to handle different relationships such as those based on real-life friendship, interests, or acquaintanceship. Twitter may have already built up a graph of 100 million people based on connections, but Facebook could bring the knowledge accessible through assymetrical following to the mainstream while improving the quality of the news feed.