Facebook's News Feed changes: A look at the likely consequences

A major overhaul of what Facebook lets users see will mean big changes for brands that rely on the social media giant for promotion -- and also change how Facebook users view the world.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Facebook is undertaking a major overhaul of what content it shows to its two billion users, displaying fewer articles from businesses and publishers and more from friends and family.

Facebook's head of news Adam Mosseri said that changes to the News Feed -- the endless scroll of posts where most Facebook users spend their time -- would be introduced over the next few months.

He said that because space in the News Feed is limited, showing more posts from friends and family will mean showing less content like videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.

He warned: "As we make these updates, pages may see their reach, video watch time, and referral traffic decrease. The impact will vary from page to page, driven by factors including the type of content they produce and how people interact with it. Pages making posts that people generally don't react to or comment on could see the biggest decreases in distribution. Pages whose posts prompt conversations between friends will see less of an effect."

Facebook is likely trying to tackle a couple of challenges with this move. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a related Facebook post that its own research shows that using social media to connect with people they care about can be good for a user's wellbeing by making them feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long-term measures of happiness and health.

Image: James Martin/CNET

"On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos -- even if they're entertaining or informative -- may not be as good," he said.

See also: IT leader's guide to achieving digital transformation

"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," he added.

Facebook has also faced significant criticism for how widely bogus news can be spread using its platform, and while Facebook said it will show content that generates conversation, it suggests that this sort of content is also on the way out: "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.

Facebook said the planned update is not the same as the recent tests where all Page content was moved to the Explore Feed. That test, which moved all publisher content across six countries to the "Explore Feed", had a "devastating effect on engagement" for publishers according to The Guardian. Page posts will still appear in News Feed, though there may be fewer of them," said Facebook.

However, it's not clear how the changes will affect another charge often levelled at Facebook -- that it creates a 'filter bubble' where users only see content or comments that share their own viewpoint, which critics warn is helping to further polarise attitudes particularly towards politics.

How Facebook changes what its users will see matters simply because of the scale of that vast audience: for many of them Facebook's News Feed is their first point of contact not only with friends, but also with news and brands. For many of those users, Facebook pretty much is the internet. But many brands and publishers have grown to rely on the social media giant for promotion.

For Facebook, the changes seem to be about securing its long-term business model; it doesn't want users turning away because passively consuming content is no longer making them happy. And, while news might drive conversations, it isn't always going to make you feel good. Facebook has to balance making sure there is enough interesting happening in the News Feed to keep users checking in (which is why it encouraged publishers into its News Feed in the first place) without depressing them.

Facebook seems to be betting that it will keep users happy longer by focusing more on friends and family and less on the outside world.

But Facebook's announcement throws up a number of questions.

Will Facebook come up with ways to help or encourage people to post? Not everyone likes posting about themselves, so without all that news and brand content news feeds might get a lot quieter.

What will Facebook now consider worth sharing from a news point of view? Will it highlight feel-good content over complicated deep journalism? Does emotional response now outrank facts and figures? As Professor Charlie Beckett of the LSE puts it in a perceptive post: "overall the big picture is that journalism is being de-prioritised in favour of fluffier stuff."

In the past, much has been made of the ability of social media to engage people with the broader world and with politics (albeit with the downsides of the emergence of state-sponsored misinformation) . Will these changes make Facebook a quieter and more inward-looking experience? If so, what does that mean for political engagement when it is a dominant source of news for so many in its audience? Does Facebook now want us all to view the world through rose-tinted spectacles?

What does this mean for brands? The admission that pages will see reach, video streams and referral traffic decrease will strike horror into the hearts of many marketing chiefs. The changes show the risk of relying on any one means of engaging with your customers. For many it will be time to spread the net wider and look for more long-lasting ways of building relationships with potential customers.

And the way that brands tell their story on Facebook may have to change. If Facebook will prioritise feel good, personal and local, then remaking their marketing in that way may ingratiate them with the algorithm. "The public content you see more will be held to the same standard -- it should encourage meaningful interactions between people," said Zuckerberg's explanation of the changes: figuring out how to do that is going to be a major challenge for marketing.

For brands that rely on Facebook to generate interest, life is about to get a lot harder and they will have to work a lot, lot harder to justify their place in the news feed. However, with less noise from other brands finding the key to unlock the interest of those Facebook users just got a lot more valuable.

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