The only thing constant about Facebook is that it keeps changing. Just when you think you've figured out the interface to the world's biggest social network, the engineers there update it again.
For the 600 million or so people who use their smartphones to stay on top of Facebook friends, recent weeks have been especially anxiety-producing. Recognizing some time ago that for many mobile users their Facebook phone app is their primary or only way of access, the company unveiled a barrage of new features that bring the mobile apps in line with the desktop browser version of Facebook.
Facebook created new versions of its official apps for Android and Apple phones and revamped its mobile-optimized Web site, m.facebook.com, which works for most other smartphones. Facebook says the mobile site actually has more users than the Android and Apple apps combined.
Some new features are easy to spot. Friends' posts now include a Share option so you can repost their updates, pictures and links to your own timeline. But other features are more subtle, and take some poking around to figure out. I'm here to help.
The most significant change to Facebook's mobile apps is that the News Feed, the real-time stream of updates from your Facebook friends, now provides the same sorting options as the desktop version: Top Stories and Most Recent. If you go a while without logging in, the app will set the sorting to Top Stories, which floats the updates from the friends with whom you interact the most to the top of the feed. If you'd rather see posts sorted with the newest always on top, tap the gear icon next to News Feed on the app's main left-hand menu. (It can take a little practice to tap the gear rather than another control). This will pop up a menu that lets you choose your sorting preference.
Your photos now have a Make Profile Picture option, so you don't need to go back to a full-size computer to turn a photo taken on your phone into your identifying image. With an iPhone, press and hold the picture to bring up the command; in Android phones, it's an option in the overflow menu.
Facebook has also built its chat function into the mobile apps. Rather than the e-mail-like Message utility, Chat is designed for conversations in which both parties tap back and forth at the same time. To start a chat session, tap the human-silhouette icon in the upper right corner of the app. That will pop open a list of your friends who are available right now to start a chat session, either on their phones (indicated by a phone icon) or on their desktops (indicated by a green dot.) There's a Favorites list you can edit to list only the friends you message most, so you don't have to pore through your entire list of available friends to find them every time.
Do you upload lots of photos to Facebook from your smartphone? You have two new options. First, you can now select more than one photo by tapping, to upload them together. You can also configure the app to automatically upload every image you shoot to a private album from which you can later share them with a couple of taps. To turn on this feature, called Photo Sync, go to your timeline and tap your Photos icon.
At the bottom right, look for the Synced button. Tap this, and the app will walk you through configuration of Photo Sync. Once you've enabled it, tapping Synced will display those photos that have been auto-uploaded from your phone to your account. You can choose at your leisure which ones to share, and they will be posted to your Facebook timeline instantly, rather than requiring you to wait through the upload process for each one separately as you go.
There are several new features for mobile status updates, too. You can tag friends in a post, just as on the desktop version of Facebook, by putting an @ sign in front of their name -- for example, "@Gregory Taylor." Facebook will turn the mention of your friend's name in your update to a blue link to their own page and alert your friend to the name-drop.
Status updates from the mobile apps can also be limited as to who sees them -- another longtime option on the desktop version of Facebook. While composing a status update, you'll see an icon at the lower right of the text field. Tap that, and you'll get a menu of options for who can see the post -- Everyone, Friends, Only Me and any friend lists that you or Facebook have created for your account.
Facebook has also added its Facebook Gifts feature to its mobile versions. Facebook Gifts allows you to buy a present for another Facebook user and pay for it with a credit card. Its catalog isn't as comprehensive as Amazon's -- you can't send someone an electrical generator to get them through winter power outages -- but less complexity can perhaps make it easier to choose a gift, since you don't have every retail product in the world as an option.
Here's how it works: Go to a friend's timeline and look for the new Gift button just below the friend's name. Tap that, and you'll be presented with a catalog of gifts. Most are of the cookies-and-candles variety, and a majority are under $20. There's an abundance of specialty foods, like chocolate-dipped jalapeño peppers. Some allow the recipient to choose flavors. Some allow you to send, say, a cheese of the month for a few months.
Once you've selected a gift, you'll be prompted to pick a card to go with it. There's a scrollable list of categories at the bottom of this page that ranges from Birthday to Holidays to Sorry. Choose a card, edit its message, and then -- finally -- tap Give Gift.
Here's where Facebook is clever: It will notify your recipient of the pending gift, and prompt them, rather than you, to enter a delivery address. Only if they actually enter one will Facebook automatically come back and prompt you to pay for the gift with a credit card. It wouldn't be the way to do all your gift-giving, but if you're just looking to send cookies to a Facebook friend, the system's simplicity is a plus.
One last, and more lighthearted, new feature: In private messages from your phone, you can now add emoticons -- those smiley faces, hearts and other images that some love and some loathe. To see the menu of dozens of options, tap the + icon at the lower left while composing a message. In addition to the familiar buttons to, say, take a photo, you'll also see a dozen smiley-face emoticons. On an iPhone, the full set of more than 200 images is built into the phone, through its own alternate keyboard. On an Android phone, it's built into the app. To see it, tap the ellipsis (...) icon at the lower left. Doing so will expose three separate tabs of emoticons, each of which can additionally be scrolled sideways to show multiple screens of emoticons.
Alas, the app can't tell which of your friends will find a message full of smiling cow faces totally annoying.interact
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.