In November, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg started sprinkling a new phrase, or perhaps a new idea, into his quarterly call with investors. “It's important to remember that Facebook is about bringing people closer together and enabling meaningful social interactions,” he said. Research, he continued, demonstrates that interactions with friends and family on social media is particularly “meaningful.” The goal of his service is to “encourage meaningful social interactions” and to connect in ways that lead to “meaningful interactions” and let us “build meaningful relationships.”
Clearly something was up. In December, Facebook researchers, worked the word “meaningful” seven times into a blog post about the value of social media. “We want Facebook to be a place for meaningful interactions,” they wrote, explaining findings that the passive use of social media can be alienating but active use can be beneficial.
Thursday, Zuckerberg more fully explained how this quest for meaning will be worked into the core of its platform: Facebook is changing the algorithm that powers its newsfeed, the service at its core and the mechanism that increasingly determines how news and information spread throughout the world.
“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our well-being and happiness,” Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post. “But recently we've gotten feedback from our community that public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other. Based on this, we're making a major change to how we build Facebook. I'm changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.”
The upshot: The newsfeed algorithm will now give less weight to the popularity of posts and more weight to posts that encourage users to interact and comment. One of the big criticisms of Facebook in the past 18 months is that the content we see in the newsfeed is driven too much by Facebook’s obsession with persuading people to spend as much time as possible on Facebook. The more time people spend in the newsfeed, the more ad revenue Facebook makes. That may be good for Facebook, but, according to an increasingly loud chorus of critics, it’s not so good for humanity.
That’s changing. Popularity may have been the most important indicator when Facebook was small. But as Facebook has become the world’s news and information network, it’s helped make the newsfeed feel like a third-rate tabloid that not only drives the most extreme and polarizing information to the top our feeds, but encourages creators of that content to be more extreme and polarizing to get noticed.
Now, instead of optimizing for how much time users spend on Facebook, Zuckerberg says he wants the time users do spend be “time well spent.” What that means, according to Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s newsfeed boss, is that video, news, and other content from formal Facebook pages will get less prominence than posts from friends and family. It means that the number of comments on a post will count more than the number of Likes, and it means that posts where people have taken the time to write long comments will get more weight than those with only short comments. News and video will continue to appear in newsfeed, but the number of friends sharing it will matter more than its overall popularity.
Newsfeed’s algorithm works by looking at every post you could see—whether posted by a friend, a publisher, a celebrity or a political candidate you follow—and then crunching the zillions of signals you’ve already given Facebook through your past use. The story is then given a score based on how relevant Facebook thinks that information is to you. The algorithm tries to assess things like whether the content is a photo, or a video. Is it about a family member or is it a news article you found on your own? The more Facebook thinks you will interact with that content, the higher its score.
The changes are both vindicating and worrisome for Tristan Harris, the former Googler who has gotten an increasing amount of traction for his “Time Well Spent” campaign over the past two years. Harris talks regularly about how Silicon Valley companies, especially Facebook, are like visual heroin—intentionally designed to be addictive.
And so part of him is flattered to see Zuckerberg, and Facebook, brazenly co-opt his ideas. On the other hand, he said it is unlikely that Facebook is going to do what it needs to do to solve the problems it and the rest of Silicon Valley have created. “Their business depends on them monetizing people’s attention,” Harris said. “They’d have to fundamentally reexamine their business model to stop doing that.” He recalled seeing Zuckerberg speak at Stanford University in 2005 or 2006. “He said Facebook was a social utility to connect you with your friends when you need it. He doesn’t talk like that anymore.”
People at Facebook say privately that Thursday's announcement should be thought of as the first of many steps by Facebook to get control of its platform this year. That will likely include changes that make it easier to determine the credibility of news sources in newsfeed and an aggressive attempt to bring rules around election and political advertising in line with those for other US media. Facebook has previously said it will require more disclosures around US political advertising.
Thursday’s changes also likely will ripple through the news industry, where Facebook has been criticized for driving users to its own platform, rather than publishers’, and by siphoning off digital advertising.
Mosseri says flatly that this change has the potential to hurt publishers even more. “Some news content that is shared and talked about a lot will receive a tailwind from this change,” he said. “But news content that is more directly consumed by users, if they don’t talk about it or share it, will actually receive less distribution.” Publishers and public figures will of course figure out how to optimize their distribution to make best use of the new changes. But they will still be dealing with a problem they have always had: Newsfeed will generally rank news stories lower than opinion pieces, and complicated, nuanced topics lower than simple ones. The cynical will have a hard time wondering if a side benefit of this ranking change is that more publishers will pay Facebook to "boost" their post to additional readers.
And while Mosseri says that long comments on Facebook posts are a good indicator of the kind of engagement Facebook wants to encourage with this change, and says that the algorithm will be on the lookout for “engagement-bait” he also acknowledges that content with long angry rants will get a bump. Will those who are hell-bent on gaming News Feed to boost their extreme views, figure out how to get all their friends to now write long, angry comments? Of course they will.