About 8 years ago, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz spotted a kid dressed in a suit at Facebook’s dingy, grey office in downtown Palo Alto.
This kid was the only person wearing a suit at Facebook’s office that day, so it was pretty obvious to Moskovitz that he was there for an interview.
It turned out this kid was Chris Cox, a recent Stanford graduate.
Moskovitz pulled Cox into a room and told him about the job he was going to interview for.
Moskovitz and Facebook’s other cofounder, Mark Zuckerberg, wanted Cox to help build a front page for Facebook that would help Facebook users keep up with news from their friends.
Up to that point, the only way a user could find out that a friend had uploaded a new picture or posted a new status update was to go to that users profile page.
Cox took the job, and then he, Ruchi Sanghvi and Andrew Bosworth, built what’s now called the Facebook News Feed. It launched in 2006.
Users hated it. More than a million of them formed a group on Facebook to protest the new feature.
Cox was thrilled with the reaction.
Prior to News Feed, no groups on Facebook had ever been so large. The only reason this one got so big was that Facebook users were reading the News Feed and seeing that their friends had joined the group.
Soon enough, Facebook users forgot they hated the News Feed, and it became what it is today: probably the most important, central feature of Facebook.
In 2007, Microsoft shocked the business world when it invested in Facebook at a $US15 billion valuation.
That couldn’t have happened if not for what Cox, Bosworth (“Boz”), and Sanghvi had built the year prior.
By 2007, tens of millions of people were coming to Facebook every day to look at news, photos, links, and status updates from their friends — all organised on a single column on Facebook.com.
That’s incredible to think about.
What’s more incredible is how, at that time, Facebook was deciding exactly how many photos, links, and status updates those millions of users should see. What the right mix was.
Every time a user checks Facebook, Facebook has to decide how to order about 1,500 pieces of information for that user’s News Feed.
Given that scale, and the sophistication of Facebook these days, you’d assume that there was some sort of artificial intelligence, machine-learning, super-computer power algorithm at work even then.
It was just two dudes in swivel chairs, sitting in a corner at Facebook’s office.
At a press conference yesterday, Chris Cox described those early days.
“Boz and I sat at these two desks in the corner of Facebook’s office and had all these knobs. News Feed ranking was turning nobs. Turn up the photos a little bit. Turn down the platform stories a little bit. Basically we were trying to respond to what we were seeing and hearing from user feedback.”
Perhaps you imagine that Cox and Boz were at least responding to “user feedback” in the form of data collected from user behaviour on the site.
They were making decisions on what should go into millions of Facebook News Feeds based on emails from users and sometimes just conversations in the street.
Says Cox: “You walked outside of the office and you were surrounded by Facebook users who were very vocal with you about what they were experiencing and what they wanted.”
“We also got a ton of mail because people knew Boz and I were responsible for ranking.”
This method didn’t always work out well. Once during those early years, Facebook signed a deal with ESPN to put its March Madness coverage in the News Feed.
Suddenly, millions of feeds were saturated with basketball scores.
Over the years, Facebook obviously has gotten much more sophisticated about how it decides to organise those 1,500 stories for every News Feed user.
Yet another update to the algorithm was the point of yesterday’s press conference.
Cox is vice president of product at Facebook these days, and he surprises a product manager named Lars Backstrom. Backstrom supervises a team of programmers that are, Cox would admit, far more talented than he and Boz ever were.
But still, Cox says, “I’m proud that we were able to make it as far as we did for as long as we did.”