Facebook’s major update: 5 things you need to think about

12 Jan 2018

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock

Zuckerberg wants to make Facebook a friendlier place.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has revealed plans for sweeping changes to the social network, in a bid to emphasise what friends and families share, and remove the spotlight from publisher and brand content.

In what is the biggest overhaul to the social network, which has been reeling from allegations of being complicit in the ‘fake news’ epidemic that accompanied the 2016 US presidential election, users will begin to see fewer viral videos and news articles.

‘I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down. But I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable’

Instead, they will see more posts from content that friends and family have interacted with.

“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us,” Zuckerberg said in a post last night.

“That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our wellbeing and happiness.

“But, recently, we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.

“It’s easy to understand how we got here. Video and other public content have exploded on Facebook in the past couple of years. Since there’s more public content than posts from your friends and family, the balance of what’s in News Feed has shifted away from the most important thing Facebook can do: help us connect with each other.”

Zuckerberg cited academic research showing that when people use social media to connect with people they care about, it can be good for their wellbeing.

“We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long-term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos – even if they’re entertaining or informative – may not be as good.”

This has prompted him to usher in sweeping changes to the Facebook platform.

“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,” he said.

So, what will this mean?

1. Pages, video and referral traffic will decline. And Facebook is OK with that

This is quite a statement from Facebook when you consider it is sacrificing some of its corporate power to rediscover its soul and its moral compass. The social network said that pages and public content will diminish in importance compared with meaningful engagement between friends and family.

It will show less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers and businesses, and admitted that as it makes these updates, pages will see their reach, video watch time and referral traffic decrease.

The impact will vary between pages and brands, and will inform how publishers produce content to reflect the new reality.

“Pages making posts that people generally don’t react to or comment on could see the biggest decreases in distribution,” explained Adam Mosseri, head of news feed at Facebook.

“Pages whose posts prompt conversations between friends will see less of an effect.”

2. People will have the power again

Ultimately, Facebook has become a big business machine and surpassed hitherto unimaginable goals. But it can’t be all about keeping Wall Street happy, it has to be about the worldwide community of 2bn people and, of course, the thousands of people who work at the social network.

And so, Facebook is going back to its roots, which is all about connecting people rather than just doling out content that might interest you.

From now on, Facebook said it will prioritise posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.

To do this, its algorithms will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and these will appear higher in the feed.

3. It is not the end for pages

Page posts will still appear in Facebook, there will just be fewer of them.

Live videos such as the latest White House press room conference via Reuters led to furious discussion on Facebook, and, on average, live videos get six times as many interactions as regular video.

So, Facebook isn’t entirely throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If anything, it will prompt publishers and businesses to think harder about content that sparks conversations.

4. It is the beginning of the end for engagement bait

We all know those posts that are created by news organisations to tempt you into clicking on or watching a video, otherwise known as engagement bait. These are constructs of new media organisations that will do anything to push traffic for their advertisers.

Facebook is pretty much heralding the demise of such mischievous content.

“Using ‘engagement bait’ to goad people into commenting on posts is not a meaningful interaction, and we will continue to demote these posts in news feed,” Mosseri said.

5. The rebirth of Facebook

Zuckerberg has had an interesting year of discovery where he set out to visit every US state in the country he grew up in.

It is a fractured world and he may have discovered – to his horror – that social media can be as divisive as it can be inclusive. And he wants to change that.

In many ways, he is bold enough and confident enough to decouple some of the carriages from the Facebook steam engine to go in a more meaningful direction.

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard – it should encourage meaningful interactions between people,” Zuckerberg said.

“For example, there are many tight-knit communities around TV shows and sports teams. We’ve seen people interact way more around live videos than regular ones. Some news helps start conversations on important issues. But, too often today, watching video, reading news or getting a page update is just a passive experience.

“Now, 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. 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.

“At its best, Facebook has always been about personal connections. By focusing on bringing people closer together – whether it’s with family and friends, or around important moments in the world – we can help make sure that Facebook is time well spent,” Zuckerberg said.

Facebook employee with CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Image: Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years