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State of the Art: The Difficulties With Facebook’s News Feed Overhaul

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Imagine you’re a cookie mogul. You figured out a way to make lots of money by giving away delicious cookies for free, and in less than a decade, you created a global cookie behemoth.

But recently your cookie kingdom has begun to crumble. Scientists are worried that people are eating so many of your cookies that they’re making themselves sick — yet they keep eating more, because who can say no to free cookies? There are concerns that your cookies are crowding out the market for normal food; after your success, fruit and vegetable companies have pivoted to free cookies, and now much of the global food supply is just cookies. Rising cookie addiction might even have helped a foreign government influence your country’s election.

So you decide to do something. You convene your best bakers, and you tell them, look, from now on, we don’t just care about how many free cookies we can shove into people’s gullets. We want to take a holistic look at the overall cookie experience. We want people to eat some cookies, sure, but we don’t want them to eat too many, so we will have to make our free cookies less addictive and more “meaningful.” Let’s maybe put carrots and kale and broccoli in the cookies.

What sort of cookie company wants people to eat fewer cookies?

One named Facebook, apparently.

On Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg announced that as part of his effort to turn the social network into a force for good, the company would make a significant change to its News Feed. The feed — the list of status updates the app displays on its primary screen — will prioritize posts that elicit what Facebook calls “meaningful” interactions with friends and family, and will downgrade things like links to articles and videos, which it says encourages you to passively scroll through the News Feed.

The effort sounds helpful, even noble, given that Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged the change could be bad for business in the short run. But if you think about Facebook’s primary service as free cookies rather than social networking, the underlying difficulties with the plan become obvious, and even existential.

Do people really want a more “meaningful” Facebook any more than they want healthy cookies? Didn’t we get hooked on Facebook for its easy outrages in the first place — for the sugar, not for the broccoli? And if Facebook’s underlying business model is based on how much time we all spend eating there, can the company ever truly resist the pressure to keep plying us with more cookies?

These questions don’t mean that Mr. Zuckerberg’s new plan will fail. But if he really does want to make the time we spend on Facebook count as “time well spent,” I suspect Facebook will have to change much more radically than it is now letting on. It can’t just become a slightly healthier cookie company; it may have to get out of the sugar business altogether. And what, then, happens to all those billions in future profits? (On Friday, the stock market seemed to harbor the same worry; Facebook’s stock fell 4.5 percent.)

Mr. Zuckerberg says his concerns are raised by research showing that some uses of social networking make people feel bad about themselves. As two of Facebook’s researchers described in a recent blog post, mindlessly reading the News Feed without interacting much — just scrolling and pressing Like occasionally — was associated with lower mental well-being.

But a study that Facebook’s scientists conducted with outside researchers found that deeper sharing on the network — “sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions,” per the blog post — improves a person’s well-being. It’s this sort of activity that Facebook is trying to encourage with the new design. Think of it as the kale cookie of Facebook.

Facebook is conceding that when the good kind of social networking is given priority over the bad kind, people are likely to spend less time on the service. What’s unclear is how much less time. According to data collected by Nielsen and crunched by Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group, American adults spent about 37 minutes a day on Facebook in September. What if it turns out that if we’re going to spend only worthwhile time on Facebook, we need only 10 or 15 minutes there a day?

It’s likely that Facebook has a very good idea of how its changes will affect engagement; the company is obsessive about running experiments and modeling its changes using data, and it probably would not have pushed this change if the numbers were catastrophic.

But its modeling is most likely only a guide to the short term. What Facebook can’t predict is how the outside world might react — how users, advertisers, investors and competitors will alter their behavior in the face of a less immediately engaging News Feed.

Mr. Zuckerberg is a famously fierce and ruthless competitor. If it looks like Facebook’s business is starting to suffer because of the healthier News Feed, and if some competitor comes along to offer us all the free cookies that Facebook is denying us, I doubt Mr. Zuckerberg will be able to stick to his guns.

There is a story that veterans at Facebook like to tell to illustrate the power of the News Feed. When Facebook first unveiled the feed back in 2006, many users hated it. They thought a running list of people’s status updates was a kind of invasion of privacy — before, updates were hidden on people’s walls — and lots of people mobilized against it.

People started creating Facebook groups promising to boycott Facebook, and within days those groups quickly grew to hundreds of thousands of members — the biggest groups that had ever formed on Facebook. Which, oddly, backfired. To the News Feed’s creators, the protests only served to prove the News Feed’s utility; it was only thanks to the viral power of the News Feed that people were able to mobilize against News Feed.

All these years later, the story also suggests how hard it will be to alter the purpose of the feed. The News Feed’s killer app has always been easy, viral outrage. It’s always been just clicking Like on something you’re kinda, sorta passionate about, then forgetting about it.

It’s always been cookies, not broccoli. It’s hard to see how that changes now.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @fmanjoo.

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