The popular online hangout Facebook is revamping its home page and plans other changes so its millions of users can more easily choose the types of information they see.
Perhaps taking a cue from Twitter, the rising service for letting people express themselves in 140 characters or less and keep up with what celebrities have to say, Facebook said Wednesday it will let users follow public figures like President Barack Obama and swimmer Michael Phelps, bands like U2 and even institutions like The New York Times.
Facebook's fan pages currently work as static destination sites for anything from bacon to Coca-Cola to Jane Austen. The social-networking site will eventually make them work more like profiles, which individuals can now continuously update by posting photos, links and other tidbits.
"As more and more information flows through Facebook, the need for people to easily discover the most recent and relevant content has grown," Founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a blog post.
Beginning next Wednesday, Facebook will also launch a redesigned home page that lets users receive continuous updates from their friends instead of every 10 or 15 minutes.
It is also adding filters so people can choose which of their friends to keep up with and which to silence, limiting news from tiresome or annoying acquaintances you don't necessarily want to "de-friend." Currently, people can choose to receive less information about certain friends but can't silence them completely. With the changes, users will even be able to filter updates so they only see photos or videos, for example.
Facebook will also tweak its central feature, the status update, which now invites people to broadcast to their friends a response to "What are you doing right now?" Responses can now range from mundane to poetic to uncomfortably personal.
Facebook's new question, "What's on your mind?," may encourage people to dig deeper into their subconscious and post more entertaining updates than "Kevin is updating Facebook."
In hopes of avoiding complaints that followed past redesigns, the company posted a preview of the changes Wednesday and invited feedback.
In a conference call with reporters, Facebook executives did not spend a lot of time on the business side of the changes, though Zuckerberg noted that the site is moving in a direction where brands can interact with people.
Debra Aho Williamson, a senior analyst with eMarketer, said Facebook has been "very aggressive in trying to rethink what advertisers can do, and more importantly, how they can interact with consumers."
"In many ways Facebook is the poster child of the future of communications," she said. While there is a lot of hope and excitement about the marketing opportunities on Facebook, Williamson said growth has been slower than "anyone has expected."
As millions of people embrace these online hangouts, consumer brands and the social-networking sites have been looking for ways to capitalize on this captive audience.
But so far, ad dollars have been elusive.
Williamson noted that this is uncharted territory, much as Google was in its early days before discovering the cash cow that is search advertising.
Companies have been getting their feet wet with varying degrees of success.
As of Wednesday afternoon, for example, a search for Skittles on Google brought up a link to the candy's Facebook page, where fans declare their love for the rainbow-colored snacks _ typos, exclamation marks and all.
It's part of a larger marketing campaign for Skittles, which earlier this week redirected its home page to Twitter's search page, such that every short post that included the word "skittles" got automatically displayed. That experiment turned sour when some tweeters posted vulgar comments. Soon, the candy's page moved from Twitter to Facebook.