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Facebook says it plans to transform the News Feed to promote “meaningful posts”

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Time will tell how sweeping these changes really are

Facebook New News Feed (STOCK)

Facebook plans major changes to the News Feed in 2018 designed to promote more “meaningful” interactions, the company said Thursday. Facebook plans to promote posts that generate discussions over those that are passively consumed, it said. Company executives say they hope the changes will make people feel better about using Facebook, following a year in which critics have warned of its negative effects on society and high-profile former employees have distanced themselves from their creation.

“We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post. Zuckerberg said that the vast increase in posts from publishers, both article links and video, had tilted the News Feed experience to something more passive and less satisfying. The changes announced Thursday are designed to favor posts that spur conversations.

“We will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed,” Adam Mosseri, whose title is head of News Feed, said in a blog post. “These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to — whether that’s a post from a friend seeking advice, a friend asking for recommendations for a trip, or a news article or video prompting lots of discussion.”

It’s not the first time Facebook has sought to rebalance the site in favor of friends and family. In 2016, the company announced it would favor posts shared by people you know over those shared by pages owned by publishers and other businesses. In 2015, it introduced changes that also reduced the reach of pages in favor of friends and family.

The changes have been real, and the share of publisher traffic generated by Facebook has declined over time, according to publishers I’ve spoken with. One way publishers have compensated for the decline has been to invest heavily in making videos — the much-derided “pivot to video” that is a joking obsession of Media Twitter. The reason is that until now, Facebook has tuned the News Feed to favor video in the feed over other types of content.

The demand for video led to the proliferation of fast, cheap video, which meant lots of stock footage with captions over it. This sort of video is one of the obvious losers in today’s announcement. If you like passively watching 90-second videos with the sound off, you’re going to have to start looking at them elsewhere.

It’s tempting to view the changes as a potential solution to the way hoaxes and propaganda can spread virally on Facebook, even after a year of heavy criticism. And yet it seems possible that these changes by themselves would do little to address the issue. Fake news often goes viral precisely because of the strong engagement that it generates from partisans on both sides. This move could strengthen filter bubbles rather than weaken them.

Zuckerberg said he expects that the changes introduced this year will cause people to spend less time on Facebook. “By making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” he wrote. “But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable. And if we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too.”