A “Facebook friend” has come to mean someone distant from your life, who does not know your innermost feelings. Now Mark Zuckerberg wants to bring us closer.
The founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social network has dramatically transformed the app’s news feed, the place where users see posts from friends, families and, increasingly in recent times, publishers, brands, advertisers and “fake news”. The revamped offering will prioritise “meaningful interactions” with friends and family, over scrolling through news stories and cat videos.
Mr Zuckerberg has responded to concerns that the platform’s 2bn-plus users were spending too much time being overwhelmed by fake news, Russian propaganda and mindless or mentally damaging memes. For critics, the site had come to symbolise much that is wrong with big tech.
Mr Zuckerberg warned investors that the changes — which he says are the first step to making the time users spend on Facebook “more valuable” — will see time spent on the platform fall. But he hopes the adjustments could eventually save Facebook from itself.
“I want to be clear: by making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” he wrote in a post. “If we do the right thing, I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term too.”
Shares in Facebook fell 4.5 per cent on Friday.
As users log on to their Facebook apps this weekend, some will see posts from friends and family crowding out information from brands and media outlets.
More changes are on the way, say people briefed on the plans, as the company tries to find a way to prioritise “trustworthy” content over fake news.
“The problem Facebook has is much more intrinsic to its social presence and the scope and scale of which it operates,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. “It is not about Russia or fake news or any of these things — the problem is Facebook is the central distribution platform for content to society in many places.”
Mr Kirkpatrick adds that for Mr Zuckerberg it is “deeply galling” to think that Facebook is having a negative effect on users. “He is going to take whatever measures he has to take to make himself and the people at Facebook feel that what they are doing is good for the world,” he says.
Mr Zuckerberg’s dominance of voting rights at Facebook means he can take dramatic action without worrying about a shareholder rebellion. He warned on Facebook’s last earnings call in December that its investment to hire moderators to police the site for fake news and terrorist content would weigh on margins.
Natasha Lamb, an activist investor with Arjuna Capital, an impact investing firm that has lobbied Facebook to combat fake news and sexual harassment on the platform, says Mr Zuckerberg has been listening to concerns that “the platform’s biggest achievement is also its biggest downfall”.
“The platform has effectively controlled the conversation. That’s great for ad revenue but not for users who are feed a stream of disinformation from bad actors seeking to manipulate the platform,” she says.
Data from Nielsen’s digital content ratings suggest Facebook users may already have been reducing the amount of time they spend on the platform by 5-7 per cent last August and September.
Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research, said in a note that Facebook had to act. “The company was (understandably) focused on driving user growth over the years, although former Facebook executives have recently described negative impacts on consumers from those efforts,” he wrote, referring to statements by former Facebook-executives Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya worrying about the effect of social media on users’ lives.
But Mr Wieser added that while the changes could hit growth in the short term, they might be “helpful” in the longer term.
Analysts at Barclays estimated the shift could result in low single-digit reductions in its forecast for 39 per cent revenue growth year on year — if people spend less time on the social network, there will be less opportunity for the company to serve them advertisements.
They added that there were many other places Facebook could place ads, including its photo-sharing platform Instagram and Facebook Messenger, its messaging app. The company’s dominant market position alongside Google — the two companies were estimated to account for 84 per cent of digital advertising spending in 2017, according to media buying agency GroupM — may also allow it to increase prices.
While Facebook’s business may weather the change, many publishers are concerned that their revenues and profits have become too dependent on the social network. Some 45 per cent of all Americans get their news from Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center, the think-tank.
David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, which represents about 2,000 publishers in North America, says news will remain popular on Facebook.
“This change does highlight, however, the power of Facebook to decide (and alter) the kinds of information that people are exposed to,” he says. “It is an incredible power that carries incredible responsibilities. Our core asks of Facebook — including a subscription model — remain the same.”
News Corp, the owner of the Wall Street Journal and The Sun, said it would continue talking to Facebook about a subscription model and would be monitoring the impact of the changes, including “looking for any signs that the weighting of news sites is politically motivated”.
Publishers that have come to rely on Facebook as a platform to send readers to their stories and videos have been bracing for a change. Data from the analytics provider Parse.ly show referral traffic from Facebook began to dip in September and has continued to decline.
“This has been building for a while,” said an executive at one big publisher, adding that it was too soon to know if the changes would result in a broad “deprioritisation” of news.
Many publishers want more details on what it means for their business, hoping they will be exempted as trustworthy media or that their content will be seen as promoting meaningful engagement.
Others will look for more ways to go directly to their readers. Jeff Sonderman, deputy executive director of the American Press Institute, suggests warning followers they might see less from the publisher’s page in their feed, and encouraging them to click “see posts first in news feed” or to sign up for an email newsletter.
One way in which publishers may come under pressure centres on native advertising. Faced with low prices for digital advertising, many media companies have turned to creating content for brands that they distribute via social media. If the reach of branded content is diminished on Facebook, that could make advertisers less willing to pay for it.
BuzzFeed, the media group that built its business on native advertising, has begun efforts to reduce its reliance on that revenue stream. In November, the website announced a reorganisation aimed at increasing other sources of sales, including ecommerce, videos and licensing.
A BuzzFeed spokeswoman said it had long focused on “meaningful”, shareable content. “We expect to continue to fulfil that mission and transcend these news feed changes, which confirm trends we’ve seen over the platform in recent months and have already taken steps to evolve alongside,” she said.
One of Buzzfeed’s most popular Facebook posts was a video of a watermelon exploding under pressure of rubber bands, viewed by more people than any other live videos at the time.
For users, the changes may mean that Facebook becomes more like a gathering of friends and family. Mr Zuckerberg’s decision reflects company research that social media is best for users when they are actively connecting, rather than scrolling passively through a sea of information.
Earlier this week, shareholders called on Apple to do more to prevent smartphone addiction — and social media is widely seen as a potentially addictive app on the phone. This change could solve addiction, or create even more filter bubbles.
Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, says this could make it easier for adults to “read updates from friends and family and then log off”.
But it might not work if those updates are filled with peers gloating about their lives. “It won’t solve other issues like social comparison — for example, one study on Facebook use . . . showed that when people compared themselves to their Facebook friends’ seemingly perfect lives, they felt more depressed,” she says.
Snap once again finds Facebook mirroring
By Tim Bradshaw in Los Angeles
For several years, Facebook has been accused of trying to copy Snapchat’s product ideas, from disappearing messages to selfie filters.
Now, the world’s largest social network is aping Snap’s philosophy for balancing personal posts with professional news inside its app, too.
In November, Evan Spiegel, Snap chief executive, announced plans to split posts from friends and publishers into two separate feeds within its Snapchat app.
“We are separating the social from the media,” Mr Spiegel wrote on Axios, to help with ”strengthening our relationships with our friends”.
“The personalised news feed revolutionised the way people share and consume content,” he continued. “But let’s be honest: this came at a huge cost to facts, our minds and the entire media industry.”
A month and a half later, those same concerns are now driving Facebook — whose pioneering of the personalised news feed has driven huge growth in the last decade — to make similar changes.
Facebook has experimented in several countries with moving publishers’ content into an entirely separate section of its app, similar to the process used by Snapchat’s Discover.
Both companies have warned that the changes may cause a drop-off in engagement as users adapt to the new systems. And both have faced concerns from publishers that the move could deprive them of traffic.
As a counterbalance, Snapchat says it will use Netflix-style algorithms to recommend publishers’ content based on what a user has watched in the past.
Snapchat users, however, have not reacted well to its redesign: the vast majority of App Store reviewers gave it just one or two stars out of five, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.
Facebook will hope that it will get more likes than its social media rival.