How to Live With Facebook and Still Live With Yourself

By Katherine Bindley Features Dow Jones Newswires

Quick: Shout out the first three words that come to mind when someone says " Facebook."

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A few years ago, this exercise was easy: Birthdays. Brides. Babies. Boom!

Now, inside the mindless, thankless news feed time suck, you can find all that plus political rants, stalker-y ads, fake news, Russian propaganda... It's hard to keep it to three words anymore.

Facebook was always a little icky, but at some point leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections, things got disturbing. Seeing pictures of an ex suddenly pop up is one thing; being vulnerable to bad actors who want to threaten democracy is quite another.

The problem is, it's hard to live without Facebook. It has become, for many, the default operating system/personal directory of the internet. There's no better way to track someone down, alert a network of people you know to big news and, yes, wish someone a happy birthday. Unless everyone departs the social network en masse (not likely given its continued growth), most of us are going to keep our Facebook accounts alive.

So how can we live with Facebook and live with ourselves at the same time?

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Facebook says it's working on its problems. It's putting more resources into fact-checking and striving to give users more information about the subjects and sources they're reading. The company also plans to share more about who's behind each of its political ads.

But even if you don't feel like you've been duped by Russians, you may want to restore your Facebook feed to its former, simpler self.

While there's no magic trick to make you love your Facebook feed, there are techniques for cleaning it up and reorganizing it like a front-hall closet, Marie Kondo style. If you take out your phone and spend a little time doing all of the following, you can turn that wild beast of a news feed into something tamer:

Prioritize People

The first step is to impose some order on your friend list. In the iPhone app, tap the three horizontal lines at the bottom and scroll down to Settings. Tap News Feed Preferences, then "Prioritize who to see first." On Android, the three lines are up top, and you just scroll down to News Feed Preferences. (There's a chance your Facebook icons look a bit different than this, because Facebook is always testing new designs.)

Select which friends you want to show up at the top of your feed. If you prioritize only five people out of, say, 700, you'll probably still see too much noise. Unfortunately, you can only prioritize 30, so... sorry, Cousin Rick!

ID Close Friends

There's actually a second way to tell Facebook who you care about, by marking people as "close friends." (Likewise, you can downgrade someone with an "acquaintance" label.) Click through to a friend's profile page and hit the blue "friends" icon. Tap "edit friend lists" to add them to "close friends" or "acquaintances" -- or any other lists that appear. People won't be able to see how you've classified them.

If you want to view a feed consisting only of close friends, click the three horizontal lines and select Feeds. You'll see feeds for those other lists, too.

At some point, I'd prioritized my sister but she wasn't marked as a close friend. When I asked Facebook if there was any value in doing both, a company spokeswoman said that marking people as priorities is most important. Adding them as "close friends" just boosts the signal.

Ditch the Duds

You can go through and unfollow a bunch of people at once -- without them finding out. Go to News Feed Preferences, tap "Unfollow people" and select people whose posts you don't want to see.

In individual posts, click the three dots at the right-hand corner to unfollow people piecemeal.

Look for the Snooze Function

An experimental feature called Snooze lets you stop seeing someone in your feed for a set amount of time. If someone is over-posting on a subject that you suspect has an end-date, just hit snooze. I've only seen a 30-day snooze option, but Facebook is also testing 24-hour and seven-day breaks.

The Snooze feature isn't appearing in everyone's app, and Facebook won't confirm a broader rollout. Still, it's worth looking for -- it would appear as an option on individual posts when you tap the three dots.

Hide and See Fewer

Even if you pare back your people, you may still be at the mercy of your favorites posting things you don't want to see. Facebook's "Hide post" option may (or may not) help.

Tap the three dots in a post, then select the option. You'll notice it also says "See fewer posts like this." Let's talk about what that means. Does doing this to a friend's political post mean you want fewer political posts -- or fewer updates from that friend?

A Facebook spokeswoman said that when you tap this option, an algorithm takes different factors into account, including whether the post features photos, videos or links to articles, what time of day it is, and yes, what topics it covers, including politics. Unfortunately, you can't specify what it was about the post you didn't like.

Review Your Liked Pages

Facebook says its algorithm is always learning. All your past likes, comments and interactions are influencing what shows up in your feed. That's why you should check up on old pages you once liked.

It's tricky from the app: You either go into the Unfollow setting and tap the Sort button at the top left and choose Pages Only. If that's too confusing, go to search and type "Pages Liked By Me." The first result there is a liked page -- tap "see all" to get the rest.

Think about whether those likes reflect your current interests; if not, unlike.

Flag Fake News

Facebook has been offering users the ability to report suspicious links for years, but it streamlined the process in 2016. If you see a post that looks suspicious, tap the three dots. Then tap "Give feedback on this post" followed by "False News."

Flagged stories "may be reviewed by independent third-party fact-checkers. A story may be marked as disputed if these fact-checkers find the story to be false," according to Facebook's help center.

If, after a few days, this exercise brings you no joy, maybe switch to Instagram. Though that Facebook-owned network was also hit by Russian-backed ads -- and also has an algorithm deciding what you see -- it can still feel more like what Facebook used to be. You know, a photo-heavy stream with plenty of brides and babies.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 08, 2017 12:23 ET (17:23 GMT)