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Facebook’s latest update to its news feed algorithm comes down to one key factor: people don't like using Facebook anymore. Starting from next week, the company plans to prioritise posts which “spark engagement” over those from media and brands. That means you’ll see more updates from Auntie Sue and pictures of friends you haven’t seen in two years – but only if enough people comment on them.
In a Facebook post (of course) announcing the changes, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained users were getting annoyed at “posts from businesses, brands and media” drowning out personal updates. So Facebook is going to penalise posts which don't make you talk.
The update will prioritise posts that trigger “conversations and meaningful interactions between people”. But how will this actually change what you see when you scroll down your feed? Essentially, it means you will see more posts from people that Facebook considers to be your friends and family, and less from public pages and publishers. To do this, Facebook will predict which posts you want to see when you login.
These predictions will aim to boost interaction – with the assumption that you are more likely to like or comment on a post if you know the person. One of the problems Facebook is trying to solve, amongst others, is to stop people being so passive when they use the network. It’s hard to gauge where Facebook draws the line between passive consumption and engagement, or what Facebook means when it says it wants to increase the amount of “meaningful interactions”. A like or a comment doesn't necessarily mean meaningful – although tagging friends in a #relatable meme most likely doesn't count. Crucially, Facebook will favour live video, which it says generates more engagement.
The move could help to remove some of the spam which plagues our feeds; Facebook has made it clear that posts which ask you to 'like, comment, share' will continue to be demoted down your feed. At the same time, certain brands, businesses and the media organisations may see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease dramatically. This means anyone wanting a slice of Facebook’s audience will likely have to change approach, or pay up for promoted posts.
Facebook says content from reputable publishers will still be bumped up feeds, but while a lot of great journalism gets read, it might not receive many comments or shares. Which is just what Facebook is going to penalise.
The rationale behind Facebook’s latest algorithmic u-turn is that people aren’t enjoying their time on Facebook. And Facebook is, seemingly, blaming publishers. The firm cites research that claims social media interactions with people we care about are good for our wellbeing. The inference: interacting with brands and media companies doesn’t have the same impact.
Zuckerberg said he expects that “the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down” – which might not be a bad thing. In 2016, the company revealed that the average user spends 50 minutes per day on its Facebook, Instagram and Messenger platforms. And that’s not even counting WhatsApp. Investors are less sure. Shares of Facebook fell four per cent after the announcement.
Despite short-term concerns, Facebook needs to act to ensure it’s long-term viability. The network has rightly been criticised for its handling of fake news and the effect filter bubbles are having on public discourse. But just prioritising content that your friends and family are interested in or interact is unlikely to wipe fake news from Facebook. People you know could still share a fake news article, or hold damaging views. Only interacting with people who hold your views will make it much easier to encase yourself in this bubble and have your opinions confirmed and bounced back to you.
Going back to his New Year's Resolutions for Facebook, Zuckerberg talks about wanting time on Facebook to be “well spent”. That means less funny viral videos, and more content from people you only pretend to like. In it’s hunger for advertising dollars, Facebook has found striking that balance impossibly hard.
Yet young people are leaving the site in favour of other networks in their droves, which is hitting Facebook’s growth. Research by eMarketer from 2017 shows that Snapchat has almost as many teens as Facebook, despite being an eighth of its overall size. And while Facebook-owned Instagram is seeing rising and double-digit growth amongst teenagers, that same audience is spending less time on Facebook.
Ultimately, this algorithmic update is an attempt to get people spending more time on Facebook and make the network more profitable. Facebook is future-proofing, regardless of the cost.