What’s old is new again with Facebook’s latest News Feed update

Facebook launches News Feed filters — first look.

That was a headline on Inside Facebook in 2008, when the social network first enabled users to sort their feed by content type.

Facebook rolling out more prominent design of News Feed filters.

That was in 2010 when Facebook offered filters for status updates, photos, links, pages, games and friend lists in a drop-down menu in the top right of their feed. The following year, filters took a backseat. Some were removed entirely, others buried in the bookmarks bar.

Now, the company is giving filters another chance in its latest News Feed redesign, but few have acknowledged that content-specific feeds are hardly new ground for Facebook. Giving users the option to view different feeds might be preferred over not giving them this control, but filters have never gotten mass adoption and are an old approach to a problem that needs a new solution.

Facebook VP of Product Chris Cox says users have been asking for these features and he believes they will use them. Cox says Facebook has evolved and there is more content from users, pages and apps than ever before, which makes filtering more important now. That’s understandable, but simply creating more reverse-chronological feeds doesn’t seem like the best way to help users make sense of all the data and content available to them.

There was clearly some reason why the company didn’t think filters were necessary in 2011, after three years of offering them and just before it opened the floodgates to Open Graph apps like Spotify. At that time, it decided to combine “top stories” and “most recent” into a single feed, with a real-time Ticker on the side.

It’s possible that Facebook was wrong to de-emphasize filters in its previous News Feed update and users will be relieved to be able to sort their feed again. But there’s not much to point to this being the case. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently said that refinements to its News Feed algorithm last year increased engagement on the order of 50 percent, suggesting users were more interested in their feed than ever. There also had to be some data that led Facebook to move away from filters in the first place. Keep in mind that Facebook had separate feeds for music, games, pages, links, notes, friend lists and interest lists when it announced the redesign last week, and few people even realized it.

It’s likely that the majority of users just aren’t that interested in filters. That said, the product team might be more successful in getting people to use filters more regularly this time by featuring them more prominently and improving the overall look of the feed with more images and less clutter. But perhaps Facebook needs to try something completely different instead of reverting to features that debuted in 2008.

The actions people take and information they share online have the potential to be tremendously valuable to their friends, but it’s hard to recognize when those stories are presented one after the other in a feed. Facebook is addressing part of this problem with Graph Search, so users can find what they want, when they want it. However, Graph Search requires users to know what they’re looking for, whereas News Feed is great for showing users things they wouldn’t have thought to ask for.

A hybrid of this is something that doesn’t simply show users what’s most recent but helps users discover what is likely to be most relevant to them by compiling activity from different sources and identifying trends or making suggestions. Users can see components of this in the music feed. The sidebar suggests popular songs and upcoming concerts. The feed also includes stories about recently released albums and posts from pages that are similar to ones that users Like.

It’s the music feed that seems most like the future Facebook should be striving toward. Simply showing users a photo-only feed or a pages-only feed isn’t very useful. But if those photos and page posts could be distributed among different feeds for categories like music, movies, news, food or shopping, then users might find more value in filters. Until then, the addition of multiple feeds seems more like an attempt to quell the latest critiques about the social network’s News Feed algorithms than a remarkable new way for users to experience Facebook.