Viewpoint: Why Facebooks News Feed overhaul is in its best interests not ours

Tyrone Stewart Viewpoint

As you are likely to have heard by now – or are about to hear anyway – Facebook has decided to make a major change to its News Feed which will see content from friends and family prioritised ahead of posts from publishers and brands. This move, as you’d expect, did not go down so well with those taking a hit. But has the decision actually come too late to attract users back to the platform for its original purpose, and is that even the real reason for the change?

Earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg set himself a ‘personal challenge’. That challenge is to fix Facebook this year. Fix it how? By doing more to protect the social network’s users from hate and abuse, preventing outside nations (i.e. Russia) from interfering in other countries’ major political decisions, stopping the spread of fake news, and “making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent”.

One can imagine that this change to the News Feed is just the first step on Zuckerberg’s journey of repairing the damage and taming the beast that he created. There are questions, however, over whether the move is truly being made for the people or just to keep face with the various governments the social network is in trouble with over its failures.

Zuckerberg wants us to believe it is due to the “crowding out of personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other,” and the idea that “when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being”. I do have my doubts about how far any of that is true.

Facebook, though it may not want to be labelled this way, had become the world’s biggest publisher. It had created a media hub that grew over the years, brought in revenue, and got rid of the fundamental ‘social’ part of its network.

The move to favouring publishers, brands, businesses, and pages in general caused Facebook to become a monster that it never intended to become. With this transformation, the social network has seen a declining number of interactions between friends and family, but a huge increase in the time users spend mindlessly scrolling through the News Feed – usually watching a variety of cat videos and taking in their fair share of fake news.

With the increase in passive Facebook use, users have been gaining more and more information – whether false or otherwise. The problem lies in that the places people get false information from tends to be the from the groups they are part of, the pages they like, and even their own family and friends. These just so happen to be all of the things that will feature more prominently on the News Feed. So, in trying to stem the flow of misinformation with this ‘hey government people, look what we’re doing’ move, Facebook may actually end up placing people into even more of a bubble than they were previously in.

This is evident in the recent revelation that Facebook’s tests surrounding the News Feed have, so far, actually given fake news a boost on the social network.

Even if this move does eventually end up slowing down the fake news problem, there still remains the fact that publishers, brands, and the like will still be able to pay to have their content placed in a more prominent position on the News Feed.

“Facebook has stated that the brand and publisher content that will have the broadest reach will be content that encourages meaningful interactions between people, therefore brands and publishers need to better understand the interests of their audience, create content that drives engagement, focus on targeting the posts to the relevant audience and avoid scheduled posting of every content to the entire audience,” said Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO at Socialbakers.

“Another topic is cost of ads, they went up 35 per cent in Q3 2017 alone. Changes to the algorithm shouldnt make brands and publishers look to spend less on ads, on the contrary Facebook still gives them the biggest potential reach. Instead they need to benchmark their ad spend against performance they get and their competitors to make sure that they are spending their budget wisely and on the best performing content.

“While Facebook has made a lot of changes recently that on the surface look like they make it harder for brands and publishers, in fact this is an opportunity. The brands and publishers that produce engaging content, are smart about their use of different post types and benchmarks and measure their ad spend can only come out winning.”

So, the opportunities still remain for brands and publishers to feature prominently on Facebook. But by prioritising content more personal to the user, it will lead to more publishers and brands having to pay to be seen, and in turn mean even more dollars for Facebook. Which begs the question if that is actually the play Facebook is going for here. ‘This news stuff may have failed, but why don’t we make some more cash off it anyway? And, hey, let’s try and get the governments off our backs while we’re at it’.

Maybe I’m just being a cynic, but I really can’t see how the changes to the News Feed are truly aimed at putting the ‘social’ back into the platform. Revenue and saving face – though it doesn’t seem like the latter may actually happen – are the only reasons I can see for it.