Facebook Is Becoming Less Like a Newspaper … and More Like Cable News

Univision’s Jorge Ramos interviewed a Donald Trump supporter in New Hampshire for a live video broadcast on Facebook.

Screenshot via Facebook

Facebook’s News Feed long functioned as a sort of personalized newspaper—a collection of stories, pictures, and status updates from the past day or two, available for you to review at any time. It’s static in a way that newer social apps, like Twitter and Snapchat, are not.

Your Twitter feed updates in near-real time. Snaps from your friends are often meant to be viewed and responded to immediately. But Facebook posts don’t usually work this way, because the News Feed algorithm prioritizes relevance over timeliness. What you see at the top of your feed is as likely to have been posted eight hours ago as five minutes ago.  

Facebook took a step toward changing that in December, when it introduced live video. That gave users the ability to broadcast to their friends and get feedback and comments in real time.

The company says the product met with early success. But there was a problem: By treating live videos just like other videos, the News Feed algorithm was too often serving them to people after the live stream had already ended.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced a tweak intended to address that problem. Here’s an excerpt from the company’s post on its News Feed FYI blog:

Now that more and more people are watching Live videos, we are considering Live Videos as a new content type – different from normal videos – and learning how to rank them for people in News Feed. As a first step, we are making a small update to News Feed so that Facebook Live videos are more likely to appear higher in News Feed when those videos are actually live, compared to after they are no longer live. People spend more than 3x more time watching a Facebook Live video on average compared to a video that’s no longer live. This is because Facebook Live videos are more interesting in the moment than after the fact.

In short, Facebook’s algorithm will now treat live videos as more urgent when they’re actually live, making it more likely that they’ll crop up in your feed as they’re transpiring. Once they’re no longer live, it will go back to treating them the same way it treats all other videos.

This is so obvious a change that you could be forgiven for wondering why the company didn’t do this from the beginning. I mean, duh: Live video works better when it’s, you know, live.

That said, I’ve explained in the past the intensive testing and surveying that goes into every change to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm. It isn’t surprising that Facebook waited to gather some data on how people were using live videos before rewriting some of its code to accommodate them.

The change is noteworthy in its own right, because Facebook believes live video—like native video before it—could become a big part of the News Feed in short order. It’s getting into a game that several competitors, including Twitter (via Periscope) and Amazon (via Twitch) are already finding to be fruitful. Mark Zuckerberg is said to be “obsessed” with making live video work in the Facebook app. And no wonder: The company is on record predicting that Facebook will be mostly video soon.

Ultimately, this could also be about more than video. There are other types of Facebook posts besides live streams that could benefit from similar tweaks to the algorithm in the future. For instance: Want to tell your friends that you’ve got tickets to tonight’s show? Good luck getting the word out in time—they’re as likely as not to see your post hours after the final encore. Want to share your thoughts on what just happened on The Bachelor, or the amazing comeback your favorite team is making in March Madness? Better give them some context, because they might make very little sense a few hours from now.

Interacting with friends around live events has become Twitter’s niche, and it’s a lucrative one: Advertisers love being able to insinuate themselves into those discussions, à la Oreo’s famous Super Bowl tweet. Twitter has been staggering under the expectations of investors who had hoped it would grow to a Facebook-like size. It’s vulnerable. But as long as it’s the place to go for live events, it’s likely to remain relevant and solvent, especially as live streaming becomes more deeply embedded in the fabric of the Internet and our online interactions.

Twitter wasn’t the first to the social live-streaming party—a startup called Meerkat beat Periscope to the punch. But Twitter used its size and influence to push its product quickly past its smaller competitor. Wouldn’t Facebook love to do the same?

Facebook today is the Internet’s personalized newspaper. Tomorrow, it could be cable news.