John Hegeman started at Facebook in 2007, one year after News Feed debuted. A Stanford PhD student in economics, he left academia to help the company design the auction system for its first self-service ads product. Two years ago, after a stint as VP of engineering for ads, he joined the News Feed team. “News Feed is really the core of what Facebook is,” Hegeman says. “It’s why people use Facebook and why they want to come back every day. I was really excited about working on the thing that makes Facebook what it is.”
Last week, it was announced that Hegeman would become the new head of News Feed, as long-time leader Adam Mosseri moved to Instagram. We sat down with Hegeman to hear more about his background, how he’s thinking about the challenges ahead, and the unique perspective an economist can bring to News Feed.
What were you doing at Facebook before you stepped into this role?
For the last couple years, I led the product management function for News Feed. I was responsible for setting the product direction, helping plan out road maps, ensuring there were good milestones and goals for teams. In this new role, I’m responsible for all the different functions that work together to make News Feed great – that includes engineering, design, analytics and more.
You started at Facebook in 2007, just after News Feed debuted. How have you seen News Feed change over the years?
News Feed was created to help people see what was going on in the lives of their friends and family. Before, if you wanted to see what your friends were up to, you’d have to go to each of their profiles, and maybe some of them would have done something new, some of them wouldn’t. You might miss something. News Feed solved that problem – to ensure that you could go to one place and see all of the most important updates from your friends.
That core value proposition has actually remained remarkably constant, even though it’s been a long time and the company, and the people who use Facebook, have grown an enormous amount. The thing that has changed is that there are lots of other things that you can do now. You can read news, you can watch videos, you can join groups or events. There are tons of different things you can do now, even though we know the most important thing that people want to do is understand what’s going on in the lives of their family and friends.
What kinds of challenges have come along with that growth?
As our platform gets bigger and bigger, there are more incentives for bad actors to try to take advantage of it. Sometimes bad actors try to trick people; sometimes they try to take advantage of the way News Feed works to get more distribution for a piece of content than it really deserves. We have to invest a lot in fighting those types of bad experiences, those bad actors. That’s never something you’re done with.
What made that a challenge you wanted to take on personally?
Facebook and News Feed are unique, both in the way they help people connect and the way they help people find out what’s going on in the world around them. It’s upsetting when that’s not as great as it could be. We know there are so many ways that the product could be better, and there are still bad experiences that should never happen. And that just matters to so many people in the world. It’s really motivating to get to work on that every day.
What are your top three priorities as the new head of News Feed?
My biggest priorities right now are continuing some of the themes we’ve been talking about this year. That includes growing the good – helping News Feed do a better job of that core need of connecting people with their closest friends and family. We’ve talked a fair amount about that this year and announced some ranking updates and product work that we think is going to help with that, but there’s a lot more to do there. That’s a big focus. Paired equally with that is fighting the bad. We’ve made a lot of progress in fighting that, but we still have a lot more to do. And third, for me – this is a new role. There’s always a lot to learn, and that’s going to be a fun process that I’m going to focus on, too.
How does your background on the ads side of the business impact your work on News Feed?
One thing that I think is helpful for me is my background in designing markets and thinking about incentives. That was something that was important on the advertising side, and even though it’s a slightly different setting, it’s also really important in how News Feed works. You need to make sure that the market works both for people who are posting things and trying to reach other people, as well as for the people coming to just consume or read content. Thinking about how that full market works together, and the incentives it creates for both sides, is something I have a fair amount of experience with and am really excited about digging into.
What did you learn about incentives that applies to News Feed?
One important thing about building markets in general is to not get overly focused on the short term. When you’re building a system – whether that’s our advertising system or News Feed – it’s tempting to see all the different decisions you might make as inherently involving trade-offs: If we show more content from friends, that might mean less stories from Pages. But when you take a longer-term view, the interest of all of these different groups are really aligned. Ultimately, if we don’t make News Feed do the best job of providing people with what they want, then they’re not going to come back to News Feed as much in the future – and those publishers won’t be able to reach the same audience on News Feed. It’s really in everyone’s interest – Facebook’s, people who use Facebook, and publishers as well – that we do a good job of ultimately serving people’s needs and providing the best product.
What do you need to be a good leader of News Feed?
One, you have to be humble. It’s a complicated enough system that your intuitions are going to be wrong sometimes. The really important thing is that you have some ideas about how things might work, but then you have to gather data and talk to people and figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Another thing that’s really important is to be able to think broadly about what a lot of different people want. News Feed is really different for every single person who uses the platform. I can’t just go and look at what my News Feed looks like and figure out whether a change was a better or worse product experience. We have to use a lot of data, we have to talk to people, we have to combine all of those things together to make the experience work.