While there are many things wrong with Facebook, matters came to a head when unfriendly forces meddled in both the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum.
As part of the clean-up, Facebook will change the way its News Feed works.
The News Feed is a scrolling list of updates that the Facebook app and website show on the main page. Each News Feed is tailored to the person logged-in to the Facebook account.
News Feed priority
Facebook’s News Feed prioritises items based on the user’s previous activity, their likes and interests. It also serves up news stories from external publisher using similar algorithms to select items Facebook thinks will interest the user.
Zuckerberg says news will downgraded after the change. Instead Facebook will show posts that it considers are more ‘meaningful’. That means Facebook users will see more posts and photos from friends and family members, fewer links to news stories and videos.
Facebook uses the term ‘meaningful’ to mean users will see more items they will interact with. That means writing a response, clicking on links or hitting the ‘like’ button. This is in contrast to the way users tend to passively scroll through news stories and video links.
Users will still get news items in their News Feed. Instead of selecting items based on interests, Facebook will serve up the stories that have more comments or have generated a lot of chatter. This could mean more gossip and sensational stories, fewer hard news items. Although that remains to be seen.
In some ways a positive move
Despite the possibility of poor quality news, giving users material less likely to depress them seems like a positive move. And brave. Zuckerberg admits the change could be hurt Facebook’s business in the short term. Shareholders agree. Facebook shares dropped 4.5 percent after Zuckerberg’s announcement.
If that’s the case, why is Facebook doing this? Zuckerberg and his team have always been aggressive. They run a clear Facebook-first strategy where they only make choices that are good for Facebook shareholders. This move is a long-term play with complex objectives.
Zuckerberg quotes internal company research that shows social networks can often make people feel bad about themselves. There are many reasons for this, one is that other users post carefully edited versions of their news tweaked to make their lives look as exciting or as perfect as possible. Too much Facebook can leave people feeling envious.
There’s also respectable academic evidence from elsewhere that users who spend too much time scrolling through their feed without much interaction suffer from negative health and mental health problems.. That’s not good for Facebook. If users wise up to these problems and leave en masse, Zuckerberg’s empire could crumble.
Facebook’s own research says that those who get deeper involved with their News Feed have better than normal personal well-being. Which implies it is the news part of the News Feed, that is the stories from journalists and others, along with the sugar rush diet of snackable video material that depresses users.
While cutting down on the bad feed items and increasing the good ones makes perfect sense, there is a problem. It means people will spend less time on Facebook. That means they will see less advertising which, in turn, will mean less revenue for the social media giant.
We can take it as read that Zuckerberg and his senior officers have workshopped how this will play out. The drop in time spent may not be huge.
It’s possible that having happy engaged readers means the advertising is more effective and that Facebook can increase rates. At this point it is worth mentioning that Facebook’s revenue per ad served has been falling for some time. Arresting that fall is important.
Flying below regulatory radar
There’s another angle to the change. Facebook has begun to attract attention from governments and regulators who have many concerns about its power. Acting now may see some of the possible regulatory action before it happens. There’s even a possibility some regulators have had a quite word in Facebook’s ear suggesting this kind of move might be wise.
Facebook’s move looks like a positive step for its two billion or so users. It may even decrease the total amount of unhappiness in the world. Yet that won’t be the case in news organisations and with publishers who depend on Facebook to funnel readers to news websites. They’ll get less traffic than before.
Publishers are understandably angry. In effect those who have used Facebook as a distribution network have been victims of a giant bait and switch con job. Facebook wooed published a decade or so ago with the promise of delivering traffic. The argument for publishers was they may as well fish where the shoals were swimming. Pulling the plug on them is an act of bad faith.
Yet Facebook has steadily dropped the amount of external news material in its News Feed in recent years. The latest move is only a speeded up version of what has already been happening.
Many publishers learned long ago that stories about the colour of a dress or pictures of cute animals were more likely to get Facebook traffic than an in-depth investigation into changes in taxation or other heavy-duty reporting.
The other aspect of Facebook changes is that it will be harder for companies and public relations professionals to get News Feed attention. That will force them to spend more on advertising if they want a Facebook audience.
Facebook is not now and never has been the publisher’s friend. Yet it makes sense to keep customers, literally, happy. In the long term that’s likely to pay dividends. In the meantime, what’s left of the traditional news media will need to find another path out of the internet maze.