Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday that his company is beginning a year-long overhaul of its products to promote meaningful personal connections, starting with a major change to the news feed. The move will prioritize posts by friends, family and groups, while curbing the reach of unpaid content shared by businesses and publishers.
Facebook said its long-term plan was prompted largely by feedback that posts from friends and family having been increasingly drowned out by content from brands and publishers, deterring people from interacting more with people they care about. Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday that this trend was particularly concerning in light of research by Facebook and academics that passively consuming content or scrolling on the social network can make people feel worse, even if that content is entertaining or informative. By contrast, research showed that engaging with friends and family online can improve happiness and health by helping people feel “more connected and less lonely.” Zuckerberg emphasized that the company’s decision to elevate posts by friends and family at the expense of unpaid or “organic” post by businesses and media, is driven by the company’s mission to help people “connect with each other.”
“We’re making a major change to how we build Facebook,” Zuckerberg said in his post. “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.”
“We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being,” he added.
Over time, what Facebook calls “public content,” or unpaid posts by page-owners, exceeded the volume of posts by people. This shift, Zuckerberg said, has detracted from Facebook’s core mission. The company said the changes are expected to cause the reach, video watch time and traffic of media organizations on the social network to decline as a whole. Posts by pages that don’t garner interactions like “reactions,” shares or comments will be especially downplayed by the updated algorithm. (People can manually prioritize unpaid posts from pages to some degree by selecting publishers they’d like to “See First” in the “News Feed Preferences” tab.)
Thursday’s updates will not affect the prominence or volume of paid posts or advertisements in people’s feeds, according to a Facebook spokesperson. However the changes could potentially result in a decline in revenue if they get people to do what Zuckerberg expects they will — spend less time Facebook. At least in the near term, the company anticipates the change to decrease the overall amount of time people spend on news feed by reducing scrolling and the passive consumption of videos and articles. However, long-term, the company predicts the change will cause people to find their time on Facebook more worthwhile, which could increase revenue in the long-run. What’s more, if businesses and media organizations lose unpaid exposure through the algorithm change as expected, they could end up spending more on Facebook advertising to maintain their visibility.
“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,” Zuckerberg said. “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.”
Posts by friends and family that Facebook predicts people will interact with will be boosted most prominently, Facebook’s head of news feed Adam Mosseri said in a post on Thursday. Other signals such as the volume of likes, reactions or comments on a post – and which connections people seem to care most about – will also influence the news feed algorithm. Posts from friends and family can be boosted through the algorithm regardless of whether they contain content like photos, videos or news stories.
Since the U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been scrutinized and berated for enabling the spread of fake news and misinformation on the social network and for allowing Kremlin-tied groups to interfere with the election through paid and unpaid posts. While protecting against misinformation and election meddling are critical focus areas for Facebook this year, Thursday’s changes aren’t designed to limit harmful or untrustworthy content, according to a Facebook spokesperson, although the company has been taking other measures to do so, such as partnering with fact checkers to flag problematic articles and increasing disclosure requirements for entities buying political ads.
Thursday’s update implies that Facebook doesn’t want its core mission to be informing the public, but rather helping people socialize and build relationships — a goal that might help Facebook sidestep some of the thorny challenges that come with being a public information service.
“At its best, Facebook has always been about personal connections,” Zuckerberg wrote.