Facebook is changing the algorithm that decides what you see in your News Feed—yes, again. And for the first time, it’s publishing a philosophical statement of the values it wants that algorithm to prioritize.
The change is relatively straightforward, although it will probably stir some controversy anyway. Facebook says it is tweaking the settings of its news feed software to give a little more weight to posts shared by actual people—e.g., your friends, family, and others you interact with a lot on Facebook. Inevitably, giving more weight to one type of post means giving less to others. So you might see slightly fewer posts from groups, media outlets, brand pages, and other sources that are not actual humans whom you know in real life.
Less straightforward, and probably more noteworthy in the long run, is the statement of values. Facebook published the statement Wednesday morning, along with the ranking update, in a blog post headlined, “Building a better news feed for you.” From the post:
When we launched News Feed in 2006, it was hard to imagine the challenge we now face: far too much information for any one person to consume. In the decade since, more than a billion people have joined Facebook, and today they share a flood of stories every day. That’s why stories in News Feed are ranked—so that people can see what they care about first, and don’t miss important stuff from their friends. If the ranking is off, people don’t engage, and leave dissatisfied. So one of our most important jobs is getting this ranking right.
As part of that process, we often make improvements to News Feed, and when we do, we rely on a set of core values. These values—which we’ve been using for years—guide our thinking, and help us keep the central experience of News Feed intact as it evolves. In our continued efforts to be transparent about how we think about News Feed, we want to share those values with you.
Interestingly, the company listed the first three values in a particular order, making it clear which takes precedence. The full statement is here, and it’s worth reading for anyone interested in understanding how Facebook thinks about itself and its goals for the News Feed. But I’ve listed below the seven values the company elucidated, starting with the first three, which together form the company’s definition of “meaningful content.” In parenthesis are my brief thoughts on what each one means.
- Friends and family come first. (Despite suggestions to the contrary, Facebook still sees itself a social network first and a media platform second.)
- Your feed should inform. (Facebook takes itself seriously as a destination for news, not just fluff.)
- Your feed should entertain. (Facebook admits it is also a destination for fluff.)
- A platform for all ideas. (Even conservative ones!)
- Authentic communication. (Clickbait, spam, and fake news are bad.)
- You control your experience. (You can customize your feed … but only up to a point.)
- Constant iteration. (Facebook knows its algorithm is far from perfect.)
Now, you could be excused for thinking that Facebook’s News Feed has just one value, and that’s to keep you coming back to Facebook, so the company can keep minting money. There’s some truth in that. It’s a for-profit company, and from a business standpoint, the News Feed’s chief purpose is to captures people’s attention, collect data on their interests, and show them advertisements.
But that’s a little too simplistic. After all, every company’s goal is to make money, but their ways of going about it vary widely. In the case of Facebook’s News Feed, there’s no single knob the company’s software engineers could turn to ramp up the profits, even if that were its only goal. Moreover, ramping up profits too aggressively today would almost certainly mean losing users tomorrow. Facebook, more than most other companies, has intentionally developed an ownership structure that allows it to play the long game, sacrificing short-term revenues in pursuit of loyalty. That gives it the leeway to optimize the News Feed algorithm for things other than just clicks, shares, and ad views. The challenge, as I explained in a Slate cover story earlier this year, is figuring out what to optimize for instead, and how to weight various metrics in pursuit of those ends.
Perhaps because it’s concerned that people view the News Feed algorithm as mercurial, mysterious, and perhaps even menacing, Facebook has taken to providing public updates on even relatively minute changes to its rankings. Its decision to compose and publish this value statement probably stems from similar impulses.
But it also reflects, in a real sense, some of the priorities that Facebook’s executives and product managers have developed for the News Feed over the years. They’ve arrived at these partly through their own intuition and biases, and partly by observing what matters to Facebook users. Increasingly, Facebook is also directly asking people, via batteries of surveys, what they like and don’t like about the service, and what they’d like to see more or less of in their feeds.
Adam Mosseri, the company’s vice president of product management, told me in an interview Tuesday that the primary motivation for placing friends and family first—both in the value statement and in the latest rankings update—was that users have repeatedly told Facebook that’s what they want. In many cases, their feeds have been overrun by posts from pages and publishers they follow, some of which post as often as 200 times a day. They may click on and like those posts, but ultimately they don’t want posts from their friends crowded out by all that professionally produced content.
Facebook acknowledges that the latest change to its service could lead to a decline in organic reach and referral traffic—that is, the number of people who see a post, and the number who click on the link—for some pages. That said, Mosseri told me the magnitude of the change is not great, and the average user probably won’t notice a huge difference.
It’s also worth noting that the change isn’t based on the type of content that’s being shared (e.g., personal update, photo, live video, or link to an article). It’s just based on who’s sharing it. So, you may see fewer Facebook posts from a publisher or page you follow, such as the New York Times or I Fucking Love Science. But if one of your friends happens to share their article or video, you’re actually a little more likely to see that in your feed than you were before. For publishers, the upshot is likely to be slightly more emphasis on content that lends itself to being actively shared by Facebook users, rather than simply consumed. In other words, BuzzFeed wins again.
But back to the values statement for a moment. The seven Facebook chose to focus on might seem rather anodyne, even obvious. But they’re revealing nonetheless, both for their order and for what they don’t say.
For instance, media companies and brands are likely to complain loudly about the latest rankings update—perhaps justifiably, since they’ve come to rely heavily on Facebook as a source of traffic. You’ll notice, however, that not one of the values the company published today is, “keep brands and publishers happy.” All things equal, sure, Facebook would like to see publishers survive economically, if only so they can keep publishing stuff that Facebook users want to see. But it’s not about to prioritize that over, say, making sure users feel their feeds are “authentic.”
It’s also noteworthy that the company is so adamant about putting friends and family first. Sure, Facebook has always been a social network, and its ability to connect people online remains its greatest edge over rivals in the tech and media industries. Yet as I and others have noted, Facebook has morphed over time into a media platform, to the point that people are reportedly posting less about themselves, and more about what they’re watching or reading.
Mosseri told me he’s not so worried about what people are sharing with one another: Friends can bond over a news article on a topic of mutual interest, just as they can bond over vacation photos. But he said the company does view that bonding as central to its identity. It doesn’t want to become an impersonal RSS feed.
Few will be surprised by the second and third values on the list—to inform and to entertain—but it’s telling that Facebook puts “inform” first. Ever since the social network become overrun with viral games, listicles, and quizzes several years ago, its leaders have been wary of the perception that it’s fundamentally a waste of time. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, top deputy Chris Cox, and Mosseri all seem to genuinely believe in Facebook’s power as a source of information, whether that takes the form of news, commentary, or how-to videos about cooking. This may be another case where the company is prioritizing what users say they want over what they actually tend to click, like, or watch.
Finally, it shouldn’t escape notice that while Facebook does believe in giving users some control over their experience, that’s not the News Feed’s top priority. As much as Facebook has been surveying and listening to users, it isn’t about to hand them the keys to their own News Feed rankings.
Previously in Slate: