Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in an interview Thursday that he wanted the social network to focus on “meaningful interaction.” But his idea of what that phrase means is likely to differ from that of news industry executives and editors — and therein lies a conflict.
Media companies are bracing for the changes coming to Facebook’s News Feed — the column that appears when the site or app is opened — that will favor posts by friends over material from news organizations and other businesses.
“Nobody knows exactly what impact it’ll have, but in a lot of ways, it looks like the end of the social news era,” Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, said Friday. “Everybody’s Facebook traffic has been declining all year, so they’ve been de-emphasizing news. But for them to make such a fundamental change in the platform — I don’t think people were really anticipating it.”
Although Facebook users craved conversation and journalists gave them things to talk about, the relationship between the platform and media outlets was imperfect from the start.
Facebook became a news powerhouse with reluctance, and journalism executives allied themselves with it mostly out of necessity, given the 2 billion Facebook users who were often a screen-tap away from an article or video.
Over the years, as Facebook and media companies entangled themselves with each other, users’ feeds that had once been filled with chatter about graduations, changing relationship statuses and other subjects belonging to the private sphere morphed into digital spaces rife with public matters — news! — and the endless and endlessly contentious comment threads that went with them.
The uncle you once looked up to, it turned out, had a habit of sharing rude memes that you did not want to see, much less Like.
That led to a problem for Facebook, which needs its users to linger so it can deliver more highly targeted ads — that’s how the company made a net profit of $10.2 billion in 2016.
Facebook says its changes will improve the “well-being” of its users. In an effort to usher in this new mood of online pleasantness, its product teams will drop the former goal of helping people find “relevant content” as they test the “meaningful interactions” thesis.
The shift in strategy comes, not coincidentally, after a year in which Facebook came under governmental scrutiny for its role in spreading misinformation and hate speech. Zuckerberg gave his interview to the New York Times as his company was preparing for a Wednesday hearing, the second Capitol Hill inquiry into the online spread of extremist propaganda. During hearings in the fall, Facebook told Congress that agents working for a Kremlin-linked company had disseminated content that reached an estimated 126 million users in the United States in 2016.
As a result of Facebook’s attempt to distance itself from an overheated news cycle and make a return to its friends-and-family roots, publishers who depended on it for traffic are likely to find themselves in trouble.
News outlets that have built a strong bond with readers and viewers through other means will be watching closely, to see whether the size of their audiences — and corresponding advertising dollars — will shrink in the coming months.
“Changing the terms rapidly is really bringing into focus just how powerful the platforms have become and how the infrastructure is a very difficult place for publishers to operate and navigate,” John Ridding, chief executive of the Financial Times, said. “That has big implications for how people receive news, where they find it and what the quality of their news is.”
Facebook executives held off-the-record meetings with publications like the Wall Street Journal at the end of last year and spoke of renewing the focus on one-to-one communication among people who know one another over content distributed by publishers, according to a person who was familiar with the discussions but not authorized to speak publicly. Even after the heads-up, however, the specifics announced this week came as a surprise, the person said.
Jonah Peretti, chief executive of BuzzFeed, highlighted the tensions between media organizations and internet giants Facebook and Google in December, when he publicly criticized the mega-platforms that have fueled the site’s success.
“Google and Facebook are taking the vast majority of ad revenue, and paying content creators far too little for the value they deliver to users,” Peretti wrote in a memo published on BuzzFeed.
On Friday, the company, which once called Facebook the “new ‘front page’ for the internet,” posted an ad on the site urging people to download a news app from BuzzFeed. In its ad copy for the app, BuzzFeed boiled down the ramifications of Facebook’s latest algorithm change into a pithy phrase: “Facebook is breaking up with news.”
Nearly half of American adults get at least some of their news from Facebook, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. Once the change is rolled out, people will still see articles shared by their friends — but posts from publisher pages will be less visible.
Facebook’s pulling back from the news — which necessarily depends on conflict — and elevation of homier material may bolster the company’s attempt to enter China, where it has been met with stiff resistance.
“Facebook is just desperate to get into China, and it will never do that unless it censors news — and this is actually a neat solution to that,” Weisberg, the Slate chairman, said. “If you only have news on the platform shared by users, users who live under repressive regimes don’t have access to real news and can’t share it, because it’s legally prohibited.”
As the site is now, every Facebook user sees a different set of posts and ads. These are ranked and tailored to what their online habits have suggested about their interests. Although Facebook prioritizes certain material — like those birth announcements that quickly draw Likes and comments — there are no firm rules for what pops up high in a given feed. In the coming weeks, though, users are likely to notice a reduction in how many posts appear from news organizations.
“Because space in News Feed is limited, showing more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation means we’ll show less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Facebook’s News Feed, wrote in a blog post Thursday.
Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade group that represents entertainment and news organizations, including The Times, was skeptical of the Facebook plan.
“If this change is as significant as they describe it, news organizations will go out of business or succeed based on a change that they didn’t necessarily have input on,” Kint said. “It reads as something that will drive up engagement and probably push away policy risk, because they’re not allowing news properties to have the same sort of presence in their feeds.”
Kint added that he had hoped it would have found a way to weed out hoaxes and made-up news stories that did not penalize publishers.
Raju Narisetti, chief executive of Gizmodo Media Group, the unit of Univision that operates Jezebel and other sites, said he was expecting the changes to kick in any day. He added that he had not heard from Facebook about what it will mean for his company and, like others in the media industry, he suggested that Zuckerberg’s company should be less mysterious.
“As always, it would be good to see transparency from any platform, particularly Facebook, as to how they are going about deciding what constitutes quality,” Narisetti said.
For media companies, a reliance on the company as a driver of traffic has proved an unreliable business model. A Facebook campaign against clickbait, for instance, sent click-dependent publishers like Upworthy into a tailspin several years ago.
Recently, in what may be a digital augury of sorts, Facebook experimented with removing news from the feeds of users in several countries and placing it into a separate feature called Explore, to the alarm of publishers. A Serbian editor described the shock of seeing traffic to his news site plummet while the experiment was underway, writing in a Times Op-Ed that such unpredictable changes by the company represented an existential threat “to the ability of citizens in all of the countries subject to Facebook’s experimentation to discover the truth about their societies and their leaders.”
In another initiative, Facebook paid millions to publishers, including The Times, to invest in making video shorts for Facebook Live, but it is unclear how successful the effort was for Facebook and the news organizations that signed on.
Savvy publishers have already recognized that they must find sizable audiences without the help of Facebook users. Referral traffic to media content from Facebook dropped 25 percent from February 2017 to October 2017, according to Parse.ly, a digital publishing analytics company.
The algorithm changes will almost certainly affect ad-supported media companies like BuzzFeed and Bustle, which depend in part on Facebook for eyeballs. Publishers that have lately persuaded readers to pony up for subscriptions, including the Washington Post and the Times, will also have to confront likely declines in traffic.
As he has at the start of each year since 2009, Zuckerberg began 2018 by letting his audience in on the personal challenges he hoped to conquer. The chief one he mentioned in his Jan. 4 Facebook post was making the site he co-founded in 2004 a force for good. His company’s return to its scrapbook roots seems to be part of his attempt to live up to that aim.
“The world feels anxious and divided,” Zuckerberg wrote, “and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”