Author(s): Martin Garner
Last week, Facebook announced it will be making significant changes to its News Feed, the core feature of the social networking site. The company will start to prioritise posts from friends and family, rather than news stories or videos from publishers, in a move that will alter the type of information that its 2 billion users view. Facebook CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said the goal is to ensure that users feel happy when they visit the site.
When Facebook was a start-up, its focus was on communication between friends. News Feed evolved over the years to become the centrepiece of the service, and primary source of revenue, powered by an algorithm that created a blend of personal updates, third-party news articles and ads.
Facebook frequently tweaks this algorithm to deliver stories that are relevant and of interest to its users. During the past few years, the company has promoted content from media companies and advertisers as the revenue it generated from the site rose. It was an attempt to strike a balance in boosting user interaction without overloading them with adverts.
Over the past 12 months, Facebook and other social platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat have faced a growing amount of serious criticism. They use algorithms to decide which information to show on news streams, based largely on each user's tastes. This creates self-reinforcing "filter bubbles" that offer a highly distorted view of the world and tend to divide people more than bring them together. These companies have also been under greater scrutiny, as critics increasingly link growing political divisions around the world to alleged misuse of their platforms by organisations that use the algorithms and other features to circulate fake news and manipulate people's opinions on an enormous scale.
As a result, governments in several countries are digging deeply into the practices and platforms of social networking companies, and are threatening significant levels of regulation to make them more like publishers. This means they would be responsible for the content they carry — just as a newspaper has an editorial policy and content to match. This would be a major change for these companies, which, so far, have claimed they're purely platforms for people to use.
In response to the recent shift in sentiment, Mr Zuckerberg recently vowed to "fix" Facebook during 2018. The change in its News Feed is one major step in this process; the social network is going back to its roots, focusing on interactions between friends and family once again. Facebook says its latest alterations to the News Feed are partly a result of user feedback, noting that people have said posts from businesses, brands and media have been crowding out "personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other".
To be clear, content from publishers will still be fed into the News Feed, but Facebook will now emphasise posts from friends, family and groups. This will affect publishers that have developed engagement strategies within Facebook and will give more power to Facebook's own content. Users should feel a stronger sense of community, and find the platform more rewarding and less of a black hole of wasted time, which is a view that some user groups are increasingly expressing.
However, it's still unclear how the move will affect Facebook as a business. Mr Zuckerberg said he expects people to spend less time on Facebook than before, but the value they derive from that time will improve. So, there'll be fewer adverts in the News Feed, but the huge amount of personal data that Facebook has, coupled with advances in machine learning, will make the adverts even more targeted and personalised — and possibly more effective for advertisers.
Another question that remains unanswered is whether more users will engage with the platform if it works better for them. Or has the fake news scandal inflicted real damage on Facebook's reputation as a source of valuable information?
The News Feed change is likely to be broadly welcomed, but it doesn't appear to tackle the filter bubble problem, which is the machinery that was allegedly misused in national elections and other democratic votes. Facebook and others are working hard on this and we should expect to hear more in the coming months.