Facebook is adjusting the algorithm that runs the News Feed to promote posts from friends and family members over posts from publishers, the company said today. This marks the second time in recent years that Facebook has committed publicly to tilting the feed to posts from people you know in real life. In April of last year, Facebook announced it was rebalancing the feed in ways likely to reduce the reach of publishers like The Verge. And indeed, many publishers did see a decline in the reach of the articles they posted to Facebook over the past year. At the same time, Facebook began heavily promoting publishers' video content, opening up new avenues for them to grow.
The move matters because Facebook has become a dominant force in the distribution of news globally, with many publishers (The Verge included) relying on it for a significant amount of the traffic they receive. Publishers that find they are unable to reach their audiences on Facebook risk seeing a collapse in their advertising-based business models. And Facebook's decisions dictate not just which content is viewed but what kinds of content are created. When the company declared last year that the News Feed would gradually transform into a feed of videos, publishers (The Verge included) scrambled to hire directors and producers to fill the channel.
Facebook dictates not just which content is viewed but which content is created
The technical change this time around is that Facebook will favor links shared by your friends and family over links that publishers place directly into the News Feed through their pages. The Verge will share this post on its Facebook page, but that will matter less than if large numbers of people paste this link into a new post on Facebook to share it with their friends directly. (Did you know there is a new Chrome extension from Facebook that will do that for you?) On its face, the move seems likely to favor buzzy, water-cooler chatter over, say, the often mundane proceedings of your state and local governments, or the policy discussions that will shape the future of the internet.
In a blog post, a News Feed executive said today's changes reflect the company's ambition to curate a perfect collection of stories for each of Facebook's 1.09 billion daily active users. "Our success is built on getting people the stories that matter to them most," said Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management at Facebook. "If you could look through thousands of stories every day and choose the 10 that were most important to you, which would they be? The answer should be your News Feed. It is subjective, personal, and unique — and defines the spirit of what we hope to achieve."
The News Feed, which was introduced a decade ago, has become synonymous with Facebook and is by far the company's most lucrative product, thanks to the targeted advertising that appears there. It has two priorities, Mosseri says: to inform and to entertain. He laid out five values for the feed: friends and family come first; it's a platform for all ideas; it shouldn't contain fake, spammy, or sensationalist stories; you control what appears in your feed; and it will evolve over time.
"We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about."
The discussion of values is notable given the controversy last month over which stories were and were not included in Facebook's Trending Topics module. "We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about," Mosseri said. "We are in the business of connecting people and ideas — and matching people with the stories they find most meaningful." Of course, the difference between connecting people and ideas and picking which issues the world should read about can be vanishingly small. How do you connect a person with an idea without first picking the idea?
Facebook would rather rely on signals such as "how many comments is this story getting" and "how quickly are people sharing it" than on editorial guidelines that attempt to sort stories by their significance. In part, this is because developing a sense of news judgment for every city on the planet is a daunting task. Facebook's ultimate measure of success is not whether people have an accurate picture of the world around them — it's whether people spend more time in the News Feed.
The question — if you're a dedicated consumer of news, or someone who publishes it — is whether the News Feed's priorities are diverging from your own. Last month I had a long conversation with Will Cathcart, another Facebook vice president, about the company's relationship with the news. My takeaway is that while Facebook is committed to users feeling informed, it's not interested in whether they're actually informed. The company asks people who get their news from Facebook whether they feel informed by stories, for example, but it does not quiz them to see what knowledge they have retained. (Admittedly this gets into certain questions of epistemology that neither tech companies nor mainstream news outlets have ever been very successful at resolving!)
Mosseri concludes his post by saying the News Feed is only "1 percent finished." This is boilerplate in Silicon Valley, where it is always early days for everything, but in this case I hope he's right. The perfect News Feed ought to do more than give you a fuzzy sense of satisfaction that you are more "informed." It should actually, measurably make you smarter about the world around you. And on that subject, here in the 1 percent days, Facebook remains stubbornly indifferent.