Bye bye brands: Facebook is pivoting back to friends and family, but should be wary of the law of unintended consequences
In the beginning, Zuckerberg created the newsfeed. Well, not quite the beginning, but close enough: 2006, so positively ancient history for social media historians. Originally, this was dedicated to the very definition of hyperlocal news – your friends’ birthdays, relationship changes and so forth. Over time, it mutated to encompass clickbait news stories, desperately clamouring to be heard over the deafening chatter of auto-playing videos.
Your friends’ and colleagues’ day to day updates gradually got muted out.
If you think that sounds like a bad user experience that somewhat goes against Facebook’s woolly-sounding do-good mission statement, you’re right, and it’s something CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has decided to take action on.
“We built Facebook to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our well-being and happiness.
“But recently we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content -– posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”
That sound you just heard was a collective intake of breath from publishers which had decided to put all their eggs in the big blue Facebook basket – something the social network actively encouraged when it incentivised them to take up their offer of “Instant” articles within the site.
Zuckerberg continued: “We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being.” He then proceeded to explain that academic research points to personal connections as being better for our wellbeing than “passively reading articles or watching videos,” even if “they’re entertaining or informative.”
As such, starting with the news feed, “you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.” But this isn’t necessarily the end of chat with strangers: “the public content you see more will be held to the same standard – it should encourage meaningful interactions between people,” he explained. “For example, there are many tight-knit communities around TV shows and sports teams. We’ve seen people interact way more around live videos than regular ones. Some news helps start conversations on important issues.”
For Facebook’s bottom line, Zuckerberg isn’t clear that this will be immediately positive: “by making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down,” he wrote. “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.”
This all fits in rather neatly with Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s Resolution to “fix Facebook”, and a general acceptance that his brand may be changing the world in ways which aren’t necessarily objectively for the better. But it does leave a few gaps that need answers: what happens to ads, for example? Can people still pay to fill that slot between your friends’ wedding pictures and your aunt’s birthday? Because that doesn’t sound good for the soul.
And what if your friends share a news story a lot – will it feature prominently then? If so, doesn’t that just mean brands and media outlets have even more incentive to be outrageous and encourage heated arguments in the comments to trick the algorithm? And on that note, doesn’t excluding wider news from people’s Facebook experience just push them closer and closer into their ideological echo chamber, potentially exacerbating one of the main criticisms of Facebook?
We won’t know until we see the changes Facebook makes, but the worrying thing is that Mark Zuckerberg can’t possibly know either. That may sound downbeat, but more than any brand on the planet, Facebook should be aware of the law of unintended consequences, given its gradual acceptance that it may have inadvertently helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election – something Zuckerberg was unlikely to have considered when he first launched thefacebook.com from his Harvard dorm room, back in 2004. He may know more now than he knew then, but there are some things you just can’t predict or control – no matter how good your intentions.
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