Facebook overhauls News Feed in favor of 'meaningful social interactions'

  12 January 2018    Read: 824
Facebook overhauls News Feed in favor of 'meaningful social interactions'

Mark Zuckerberg announced a major overhaul of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm that would prioritize “meaningful social interactions” over “relevant content” on Thursday, one week after he pledged to spend 2018 “making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent”.

The social media platform will de-prioritize videos, photos, and posts shared by businesses and media outlets, which Zuckerberg dubbed “public content”, in favor of content produced by a user’s 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,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post announcing the change. “We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being.”

The changes seemed designed to quiet some of the maelstrom of criticism Facebook has received in the past year, as critics have taken the company to task for cloistering users in filter bubbles, facilitating the proliferation of misinformation, allowing foreign interference in national elections, and exploiting human psychology for profit.

Facebook was slow to acknowledge the legitimacy of those concerns, with Zuckerberg notoriously dismissing the idea that propaganda and fake news impacted the US presidential election as “pretty crazy” in late 2016. But the company changed its tune in fall 2017, after it acknowledged that a Russian influence operation had purchased $100,000 worth of ads promoting politically divisive content in the lead up to the election.

After a handful of former Facebook insiders began speaking out about social media’s addictive nature and deleterious impact on society, the company acknowledged for the first time in December that passive consumption of social media can be harmful to users’ mental health.

Facebook maintains that active and “meaningful” interaction can be good for people, so users will soon be more likely to see a post from a friend than a viral video.

In his post, Zuckerberg noted “video and other public content have exploded on Facebook in the past couple of years”, to the extent that some feel it is “crowding out” updates from friends and family.

What Zuckerberg did not mention is Facebook’s direct involvement in that explosion. Despite frequently disclaiming that it is not a publisher or media company, Facebook has paid media outlets to produce videos for the site. About two-thirds of Americans rely on social media for news, according to a survey by Pew Research Center.

The changes to News Feed will likely have a significant impact on the news media. As Facebook grew to dominate users’ attention time, many publishers adjusted their editorial strategies around the type of content the News Feed algorithm was promoting.

Facebook sparked outcry from publishers in six countries in October when it removed all public content from the News Feed to a separate “Explore Tab”. In a blog post accompanying Zuckerberg’s announcement, Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of News Feed, said that the current changes would not be as extreme as those “tests”, and some public content will still appear in users’ feeds.

But Mosseri conceded: “As we make these updates, pages may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease. The impact will vary from page to page, driven by factors including the type of content they produce and how people interact with it.”

Zuckerberg wrote that the changes will likely result in people spending less time on Facebook – a change that may have negative impacts on the company’s bottom line.

“If we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too,” he wrote.

In an interview with the New York Times, the father of two put a finer point on his concerns about doing the right thing, saying: “It’s important to me that when Max and August grow up that they feel like what their father built was good for the world.”

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