Facebook Steps Away From the Public Web

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Photo: Facebook

In one of the most significant strategic shifts in recent memory, Facebook announced last night that it would tweak the News Feed algorithm that powers much of the site to put less of a focus on brands and Pages, and more of a focus on friends and family. Explaining the shift in — what else — a Facebook post last night, Mark Zuckerberg said, “The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health.”

“With this update, we will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people,” Adam Mosseri, head of the News Feed product, explained. “To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed.”

News Feed rankings have always been influenced by users’ social graphs to a certain extent, but there are significant potential upsides to this approach. The News Feed as it stands right now can often feel like a feed without a soul — dominated by corporate brands and entities without any human personality. It can feel that way because, oftentimes, these brands pay to be there using Facebook’s ad-targeting technology. It can also feel less personal because, for years, Facebook tried to emphasize posting publicly for a wide audience.

In reality, few people actually want (or need) to build a public online brand — and it can certainly be awkward to do so in front of an online audience that includes your oldest friends, friends from college, your aunt, your boss, your ex-girlfriend, and that guy you met at a party a couple of times. It’s tough to cater to all of those audiences at once. This is why Facebook began overhauling and emphasizing its more intimate, semi-private Groups product earlier this year, and it’s why users are retreating in private-messaging and chat-room apps like Snapchat (whose most popular function continues to be private chat), Slack, and Discord. This is intentional: “As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media,” Zuckerberg said last night.

Less focus on posts from brands and media also has another fun effect — curbing misinformation and fake news disseminated on the Facebook platform. It’s one thing to hear a crazy rumor from your uncle, and another thing entirely to hear it from TrumpResistanceArmy.biz. Along with the announced changes to News Feed, The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook “is weighing another major change that could eventually elevate media outlets deemed more trustworthy compared with publishers considered less credible,” an interesting rumor considering that Facebook has long tried to avoid being an arbiter of truth.

The impact this friends-and-family change will have on the many, many companies that rely on Facebook as a source of web traffic is significant, and should cause a lot of hand-wringing over the coming months. For about half a decade, online media has basically become a race to see who can game the News Feed algorithm most effectively. Whatever format was weighted most heavily by Facebook as their News Feed flavor of the month was what publishers decided to do. There were the Instant Articles, there was live video, and there were the autoplaying, captioned clips — a format so transparently formatted for the News Feed that it became a genre unto itself.

Ad rates and benchmarks have been set against the immensely powerful fire hose of traffic that Facebook is able to direct to websites, or to those sites’ content hosted on Facebook. But that referral traffic has begun to dip, and now it appears those eyeballs are never coming back. This can feel most perilous for companies that laid off all of their writers and did a “pivot to video.” It’s not difficult to see this as a significant middle finger to the publishers that Facebook always paid lip service to but never really needed. Though a slightly different experiment, Facebook began testing a system in some countries recently that moved publishers to an entirely different section of the service, and traffic referrals fell off a cliff. The media industry needs Facebook’s network a lot more than Facebook needs the media industry, and now we’re going to see the consequences of that lopsided relationship even more acutely.

Near the beginning of his announcement last night, Zuckerberg wrote this:

It’s easy to understand how we got here. Video and other public content have exploded on Facebook in the past couple of years. Since there’s more public content than posts from your friends and family, the balance of what’s in News Feed has shifted away from the most important thing Facebook can do — help us connect with each other.

What this leaves out is Facebook’s direct role in the explosion of video and public content. Facebook weighted its News Feed algorithm so that video uploaded natively appeared more often than links to other sites. It threw billions of irrelevant public posts liked by friends into other users’ feeds in an attempt to create one big, public community instead of what the web really is — millions of private communities. The behavior on Facebook was dictated by the product changes that Facebook’s designers made.

These strategies — the emphasis on video, the emphasis on public brand-building — did not come about because Facebook’s individual users wanted them. They came about because Facebook saw them as opportunities for advertisers. It paid top publishers to use its video products to make them seem more appealing and en vogue to the average user. Users did not influence Facebook’s structure and design; Facebook’s strategic decisions dictated how users acted on the site. For Zuckerberg to shy away from talking about his precise ability to alter user behavior and instead claim to have arrived at this new stage “by looking at the academic research and doing our own research with leading experts at universities” is disingenuous, to say the least.

Insincere as it may be, however, at least we’ve gotten here. Facebook’s public posturing makes it seem less intent on shoving ads in your face, and showing you posts and pages you don’t care about. Hopefully, it will lessen Facebook’s burden as a distributor of news and information about the broader world, and recenter as a place to find out what your buds are up to. “By making these changes,” Zuckerberg wrote, “I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down.” Taken alongside his comments last week about looking at a more decentralized internet, there may be hope (albeit muted) for Facebook yet.

Facebook Steps Away From the Public Web