The trepidation — and inevitable outrage — with which much of the media has greeted Facebook’s latest change to the News Feed algorithm seems rather anticlimactic. Nearly three years ago I wrote in The Facebook Reckoning that any publisher that was not a “destination site” — that is, a site that had a direction connection with readers — had no choice but to go along with Facebook’s Instant Article initiative, even though Facebook could change their mind at any time. A few months later, in Popping the Publishing Bubble, I explained why advertising would coalesce with Google and Facebook; that is indeed what has happened, which is the real problem for publishers. Facebook’s algorithm change simply hastens the inevitable.
The story for media is for all intents and purposes unchanged: success depends on building a direct relationship with readers; monetizing that relationship (likely through subscriptions, but not necessarily); and leveraging Facebook as an acquisition channel for those long-term relationships, not short-term page views. If anything this change will help reader-focused publications: users will be more likely to see links shared by their friends, enhancing the word-of-mouth marketing that is the foundation of reader-centric publications.
What I find far more compelling is the question of Facebook’s motivation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook:
One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent. We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us. That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our well-being and happiness.
We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being. So we’ve studied this trend carefully by looking at the academic research and doing our own research with leading experts at universities. The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. 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.
Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. 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 started making changes in this direction last year, but it will take months for this new focus to make its way through all our products. The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups. 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…
,,,MUCH MORENow, 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.Forgive the longer-than-usual excerpt, but there is a lot here. Zuckerberg:
In an interview for the Daily Update, Vice-President of News Feed Adam Mosseri argued that this would benefit Facebook in the long run:
- Implicitly admits that time spent on Facebook may not “well-spent”, and cites research suggesting that many common activities on Facebook may not be good for you
- Introduces the change as a shift in goals from delivering relevant content (a “perfect personalized newspaper”, as Zuckerberg called it in 2014)
- Suggests that the time spent on Facebook may decrease due to these changes (sending Facebook’s stock down)
This change is primarily focused on doing right by our community, because we actually believe that by doing right by the community in the long run will be good for the business and so we just try to take a long term approach to any question like this.I absolutely believe the last part of that quote: Facebook is taking a long-term view, and it would only make this change were it right for the business. I’m just not entirely convinced that Zuckerberg and Mosseri are telling us the entire story.
Start with Zuckerberg’s claim that this change will reduce “the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement.” Mosseri said that would be mostly due to less time spent watching video, given that video content would likely be hurt by this algorithmic change.
That in and of itself is certainly interesting; Zuckerberg has been pushing the importance of video on earnings calls for some time now, and no wonder: TV advertising money remains the proverbial gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow for all advertising-based tech companies. Is Facebook giving up on its leprechaun dreams?
I don’t think so, and not just because forgoing all of that potential revenue would be quite unbelievable....