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Facebook news feed: Why it is changing and what it actually means for users

Less memes and news, more friends and family

Andrew Griffin
Friday 12 January 2018 17:25 GMT
A Facebook sticker is pictured on a laptop at Facebook's new headquarters, designed by Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry, at Rathbone Place in central London on December 4, 2017
A Facebook sticker is pictured on a laptop at Facebook's new headquarters, designed by Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry, at Rathbone Place in central London on December 4, 2017 (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Facebook might be about to make its most profound change to the news feed since it launched.

The site has announced that it will redesign how it ranks the posts and pages that appear to its users every day. By doing this, it could change the information and news that is consumed by billions of people, fundamentally altering the media landscape.

The change suggests that Facebook thinks something is deeply wrong with how it works, and it is intent on fixing it.

Indeed, that was the message of Mark Zuckerberg’s annual challenge – something he’s done since 2009, but which have mostly focused on extracurricular or lighthearted commitments. This year, he offered a far more substantial challenge: to fix his social media platform.

What’s changing?

The real difference is the way the site will alter how posts are ranked in the news feed. Everything that’s posted on Facebook is ordered in various ways to try to convey what’s most relevant – how new it is, who it was posted by, whether people are clicking on it, and so on – and it’s the algorithm that decides that ranking that will change.

From now, it will attempt to push posts that come from family and friends, rather than brands. So less of the news stories, memes and shops that might take over your feed; more of the people you know in real life.

“With this update, we will also prioritise posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people,” the company said in a blog post alongside the announcement. “To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed. These are posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to – whether that’s a post from a friend seeking advice, a friend asking for recommendations for a trip, or a news article or video prompting lots of discussion.”

The important thing to note is that this might not, at least initially, make any difference to you. There’s not expected to be any obvious change, but more of a gradual move in the kinds of posts you’re seeing and who they’re from.

But the site fully expects that this change will mean you’ll spend less time there. (It’s thought to be that admission that led its shares to plunge after it was announced.)

Why is Facebook doing this?

There are all sorts of reasons, some of them explicit and some more hidden. Facebook has given its explanation, but it’s unlikely that’s the entire story.

In Mark Zuckerberg’s telling, the change has been made to make the Facebook experience more meaningful and positive. He cited a range of research and work that has shown that people tend to look for deeper and more personal connections on the site, and by emphasising friends and family then you’ll get more of that.

But there are other reasons to be doing this, too. For instance, Facebook might now be able to charge advertisers more to get into people’s feeds, since the change means advertisers are less likely to find their way in there organically.

Another important effect is “context collapse” – the name given to the fact that people are posting less about themselves on the site, and so the context of their personal lives is disappearing. That’s worrying to Facebook because it’s supposed to be about people’s personal lives, but it’s worrying in a more direct way, too: if people aren’t posting about themselves, that information can’t be used to sell ads.

All of those problems – and many more – are probably at play in Facebook’s decision.

What if I want to go back to the old news feed?

In short, you can’t. Facebook is for the most part entirely impossible to customise, but there are some little fixes you can do to solve the more obvious parts of the new feed, if you don’t like it.

If more people are showing on your feed, and you don’t like them, then you can mute their posts. That’s done by clicking the little arrow on the corner of anything they post, and choosing to unfollow them – that won’t stop you from being friends, but will keep their updates out of your feed.

And the other thing is to engage and interact more with the kinds of posts you like. Facebook learns what you like and what to show you using a variety of different things, but the most important – especially now – is whether something actually drives you to like or comment on it. So if you do enjoy something, make sure to at least click on it; that way, Facebook will see that you like that content, and might show more of it in the future.

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