Hi, this article is especially intended for all those who have to deal with Facebooks News Feed changes for professional reasons. In my analysis I would like to explain the basic principles behind Facebook News Feed. I would also like to analyse the reasons for the reorganisation, highlight risks and opportunities for publishers and society and take a look at the future of Facebooks. If my work is worth anything to you, I am looking forward to your donation via PayPal! Be smart: This article was originally published in German. I used DeepL for the translation. Merci, Martin
Deutsche / German Version
The News Feed
The original idea of the news feed was to bundle all the activities of friends in one place. Until now, users had posted their photos and status updates only on their own profile page. The news feed now made it possible to see at a glance everything that the friends are up to, without the hassle of surfing from profile page to profile page.
Since the introduction of the news feed in September 2006, the news feed has become the dominant feature of how we operate in popular social media apps – whether on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The main function of the news feed is to spread attention. For Facebook, the „News Feed“ feature is the main product and the most important part of the user experience – it’s not for nothing that every Facebook user starts the app or by default via desktop with the Feed News feed.
Pull vs Push
Only a few years ago, the smartphone became the most popular tool for accessing the Internet (see ARD/ZDF online study). In the mobile web, however, we experience a completely different Internet than it was in desktop times. The central difference is the difference between Pull vs. Push.
In the past we primarily used a web browser to go online. We typed addresses into browsers and pulled (pull) information from the net – whether it was news, entertainment or communication.
In the mobile Internet, on the other hand, we mainly use apps from Google or Facebook to go online. We don’t experience a free Internet, but rather an Internet on the Internet – built up, mediated and controlled by the interests of the tech giants.
In contrast to previous, primarily stationary Internet use, content from the Facebook Internet is not pulled, but pushed (push) to the user.
As a result, Facebook has become the most important distributor of information in the western world. Which content on Facebook reaches the user in the said „news feed“, i. e. is pushed to him or her, is determined by Facebooks rules of the game.
However, the rules of the game are not transparent to third parties. While there are well-founded opinions and indications as to how the readout and distribution process commonly referred to as „Facebook algorithm“ works, it is ultimately Facebook’s best kept company secret.
Who fights for attention in the news feed?
So if you want to play a role in the mobile Internet, it seems to be a good idea to get involved with the rules of Facebook if you want to reach as many users as possible.
Various interest groups are fighting for the limited space in the news feed: Advertising companies, brands, webstars, NGOs, entertainment, news organizations and last but not least private users.
What was once conceived as a place to be informed about the latest updates from friends has become the largest marketplace of ideas. For example, the US news provider Fox News alone posted an incredible 49,330 articles on Facebook in December.
The fact that an algorithm intervenes here in order to control attention in the user’s interest is therefore easy to understand. However, it is exactly the way in which the algorithm selects content that is always the reason for criticism – the algorithm decides on the rise and fall of companies and ideas. More about this later.
What is Facebook’s benefit from the news feed?
The news feed is the central product of Facebook. Whoever opens the app lands there. Whoever logs in to the browser also. The news feed plays an extremely important role in Facebook logic.
- The news feed is the place where users primarily leave data traces: they interact with content, often via emoji, they comment, they share, they share their desires, worries, ideas, hopes, they tell of products they find exciting, recommend restaurants, series, destinations to friends.
- The news feed is the reason why many users use the app – they get a colorful mix of content curated: from their cousin’s wedding photos to the status update of their favorite star to some short news snacks.
- The news feed also plays a big role when it comes to getting users to reopen the app: someone responded to something you wrote, a new update from a good friend, etc… (I recently described for Brand One how these hooks work).
- The news feed is also the place where users are primarily confronted with advertising. Facebook earns unimaginable sums of money by placing advertisements in the feed and allowing fanpage operators to boost certain content.
The news feed and journalism
The news feed has played an exciting role in reaching new readers for journalistic offers before. But it wasn’t until a major redesign of the news feed in 2013 that Facebook became as important to publishers as it might have been until last Friday.
In March 2013, Zuckerberg came up with the idea of converting Facebook into a kind of „perfect“ personalized newspaper for everyone. At the time, he looked suspiciously at Twitter, where the statements of high-ranking politicians, political discourse and even historical upheavals took place.
On Facebook, on the other hand, there was fiddling, ice bucket challenges and the new bullshit about acquaintances was told. An unacceptable state of affairs for the ambitious Mark Zuckerberg. The News Feed algorithm has been diligently tightened – with the result that, from summer 2013 onwards, all those registered as media sites reached undreamt-of coverage. (For this: My dear colleague Adrienne Fichter in the first issue of the REPUBLIK.)
In October 2013, shortly before the IPO of Twitter, the news feed was even turned a new screw and publishers were again presented with an increase in reach. News did not only take place on Twitter but also on Facebook. A direct attack on the competitor.
The original idea of using the news feed as a place for updates from friends was thus put to maximum use, as it will become apparent that the logic by which the algorithm sorts content (popularity, commitment, etc.) was never really compatible with journalistic content. But more about that later.
Over the years, it has already been seen that Facebook was always looking for a good balance between the old mission, Facebook as a network for friends, and the new idea of making Facebook as a central marketplace for all information. It comes to some tweaks, which sometimes rank messages and sometimes posts from friends better in the news feed. Above all, the news feed product team is constantly striving to fight Clickbait. However, they do not keep an eye on fake news. (Here is a complete list of all news feed updates.
In addition, Facebook also recognizes that it is not so wise to send users away from a purely economic point of view. Rather, content is to be experienced directly on the platform: the preference of videos (2014) uploaded directly to Facebook, the establishment of instant articles (2015), and the introduction of live video (2016) are the result.
But it’s probably above all the Trending Topics scandal that is best suited to portraying the tension between journalism and Facebook.
The Trending Topics Scandal
Facebook had copied the Trending Topics feature from Twitter and initially only introduced it in the USA. The idea: A separate location on Facebook lists all the topics that are currently trendy on Facebook. In the best case this would be, similar to Twitter, above all world political events.
However, it soon turned out that an editorial team was needed to help a little – all too often all other trending topics would have been filled with the latest viral crap. Too bad that the editorial staff were kept secret and the editorial staff preferred leftist ideas.
When Gizmodo reported in September 2016 about the manipulation by employees of the same Trending Topics editorial team on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was faced with a wave of criticism that was intended to give him a foretaste of what the following year had in store for him.
As a consequence of the Trending Topics scandal and the never-ending volume of content published on Facebook by professional media providers, brands and co., Facebook has made some changes to the news feed that publishers have seen over the course of 2017, resulting in Google being responsible for more traffic among publishers than Facebook by the end of 2017.
The gradual curtailment of the organic reach, the introduction of a separate feed (the Explorer Feed) and a news feed test in six selected countries, which served to exclude news from the users‘ regular news feed, have already made it clear where the journey would lead.
Motivation of Facebook for rethinking news feed
News has always been opposed to the logic of news feeds. As shown at the beginning it is important to follow the rules of the News Feed algorithm, if you want to appear in the news feed of the users. Only those who follow the rules of the game have a chance to be included in the news feed.
However, these rules of the game are always based on likes and commitment. In this sense, news that seems rather boring or is presented in a maximum objective way has no chance of appearing in the news feed. It is the principle of maximum emotionality that applies, it may be tempting, rather commentary than pure message.
Moreover, neither advertisers nor ordinary users like bad news or controversial opinions. The goal of Facebooks News Feed is not that users know everything, experience everything or are challenged in their comfort zone. The aim is to keep the user on the platform for a maximum of time. It’s better not to expect him to have too difficult news.
A former, high-ranking Facebook employee gets to the point:
News on Facebook has actually hurt, not helped, them.
Since the US election, Mark Zuckerberg has been facing a wave of criticism, which he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams. Zuckerberg’s Facebook is criticized for:
- Russia’s influence on the US election
- the circulation of propaganda, Hate Speech and fake news
- the creation of filter bubbles and echo chambers
- endangering the mental health of its users
- discrimination against minorities through advertising
- and, and, and
All this is bad for business and bad for the company’s reputation. Who wants to use an app that makes all this possible? These are both serious reasons for wanting to pull things around and fix Facebook, as Mark Zuckerberg put it as a challenge for 2018.
But above all, and this level of power, money and ingenuity is not to be ignored, Mark Zuckerberg himself seems to be enormously annoyed by what has become of his Facebook.
Now Facebook and Zuckerberg may be extremely sceptical about such an aggregation of power in a non-democratically legitimised group for reasons of data protection and general dislike, but it is impossible to imagine that Zuckerberg has wanted or would continue to accept all the criticisms he is criticised for. The interview with the New York Times, in which he explains that he does not want his daughter to think that Facebook is bad for the world, I take it from him.
Users are posting less and less
Facebook has been confronted with the challenge of users posting less and less for some time now. This is probably due to the fact that the user cannot really be sure whether his mail is actually seen by his friends (keyword:“Facebook algorithm“). Then why would he even post? On the other hand, the regular user moves around in an environment where countless professional media content is launched – this could sometimes seem a bit intimidating with regard to one’s own thoughts, photos and videos.
Furthermore, since Snowden’s revelations, it has become apparent that the discussions have shifted to more private rooms: groups or messengers.
Both bring problems:
- First of all, users leave hardly any data traces if they only use Facebook passively. Wishes, dreams, etc. from which Facebook can read out patterns that Facebook can sell for targeted advertising are then only conditionally recordable. (This video explains extremely well how Facebook gets its data and recognizes patterns from it.
- Secondly, Facebook internal statistics show that Facebook becomes irrelevant to users if the number of content posted by friends and family is too low. That must be prevented.
- Thirdly, studies presented by Facebook itself show that there seems to be a connection between passive Facebook use and poor mental health. I cannot judge to what extent this study only fits the Facebook approach, i. e. to move users back to the posts themselves, but of course I have to critically scrutinize it.
Facebooks China Problem
Wolfgang Blau rightly draws attention to FaceBooks China Problem in a medium-post. Facebook currently has almost two billion users worldwide. If Facebook wants to grow, the social network must also gain a foothold in China. But this can only work if the social network is depoliticised.
However, since it might be difficult to create a fully Chinese version of Facebook, it might be a good idea for Facebook to pull the plug on news in general. Wolfgang Blau:
News journalism has become a strategic burden for facebook in its critical need to be a truly global player, which it isn’t. Not as long as they are not in China and always at risk of being thrown out of Russia or Turkey. There is zero strategic interest for Facebook to become a ‚publisher‘, just like Apple has no reason to buy the New York Times, despite that being a never=ending speculation in the industry. Owning the Times would be a political stone around Apple’s neck in China. Wrapping too much journalism around your brand is a mistake for any platform hoping to still make it into China, which is one of Mark Zuckerberg’s great ambitions.
Potential consequences for publishers
The content of friends and family members will be ranked higher in the future. Thus the news feed changes will lead to much less visibility for the postings of Fanpages. The figures for the coming months will have to show how much of an impact it really has.
Damaged trust relationship with Facebook
With the exception of three publications, no media company was inaugurated in advance via Facebook’s plans. Since Facebook had launched the Journalism Project just a year ago and is always happy to present itself as a partner to PR-appropriate journalistic providers, the horror of those partners must have been enormous when the plans of the news feed conversion became known. To speak of a damaged relationship of trust is likely to be seen as euphemism in many places.
Reduction of video teams
As described above, Facebook wanted to ensure that publishers made a huge effort to be successful on Facebook through a variety of news feed updates. Among other things, publishers and others who hadn’t previously had the topic of video on screen had set up their own teams and editorial offices in order to be able to offer video on Facebook. All these efforts could possibly be evaporated.
Viral publishers may die
Content providers in particular, who depend on Facebook to deliver enormous traffic, are likely to be hit hard by the restructuring of the news feed. Facebook asserts that such content could continue to be found on Facebook, but only if it is „meaningful“. More about this later.
Many will now put their faith in engagement
As there’s no point in betting on traffic, many publishers will now focus on engagement. The problem here is that journalism is not primarily intended to generate interactions. Rather, it is primarily a matter of informing. In a journalistic sense, passivity is not a bad thing – quite the opposite of Facebook logic.
Options and opportunities for publishers
- All of them should let their users know that there will be a big news feed update and what consequences this will have for the relationship Fanpage <-> users.
- It would also not hurt to inform users directly that if they select the „See First Option“ on the fanpage, they will continue to see everything that the content provider posts – regardless of the news feed conversion.
- The goal for many is probably: to optimize engagement instead of clicks. So it will show who has a real community and who only has traffic bringer. What is important here is that we do not engage in any kind of engagement but aim to build a real community, to find a loyal audience. About groups.
- We have to adjust to the fact that without financial support, it is almost impossible to achieve a certain range. The days of large organic ranges are probably over.
- New focus for social media editors: instead of being reach-providers, community skills are now in demand. This is a very different job and requires a different approach. Many will now find themselves in the situation for the first time, really making contact with the audience and trying to understand it.
- It is also likely to be interesting for many publishers to place greater emphasis on people as brand ambassadors. If fan pages decrease, then rely more on real people to get their own editors to act even more strongly on Facebook. The news feed test in Slovakia has shown that it is often not so much the fan pages themselves that generate the traffic, but rather the influencers / people.
- It is also certainly helpful to focus on other apps. Now Twitter is really not a reach bringer in Germany so far, but perhaps it is worth a look again. Email or Messenger is also likely to play a much bigger role for many in the future. In addition, Flipboad is also an exciting tool for collecting users.
- It will be about finding a direct line to the audience. If you’ve only been looking for quick clicks so far, you should consider how to turn a fugitive visitor into a recurring, and in the best case even a paying subscriber in the future.
- Facebook should under no circumstances be abandoned completely, Facebook is still too much of a central interface for the foreseeable future when it comes to distributing attention. But perhaps Facebook will be more of a communications tool for publishers than a traffic supplier in the future.
General opportunities of the news feed changes
Facebooks role as a distributor of information
Possibly, but only possibly, the rebuilding of the news feed leads to the fact that in the future, users will again look increasingly for information in other ways. However, this also means that the offers should be correspondingly attractive: The quest for improved personalization offers on websites, simple subscriber options, etc. is now in demand.
Confidence in the media declines further
Perhaps the reorganization of the news feed will also mean that confidence in the media does not diminish further, as providers will no longer have to compete directly with Lukas Podolski’s and Bored Panda content in the future.
Publishers reflect on journalistic principles
A further chance in the reorganization of the news feed could be that publishers will focus much more strongly on journalistic virtues in the future. Far too often editorial offices have used capacities to create Facebook-optimized content. If this is no longer an option in the future, freedom for other journalistic ideas is possible.
Problems and dangers of the news feed changes
More Propaganda, Hate Speech, Fake News
The revelations surrounding Russia’s attempted influence on the US election via Facebook have shown that it was not so much the ads or fanpage content that was responsible for circulating propaganda as the regular users‘ postings.
The news feed test in the six countries mentioned above has also led to a reduction in the reach of regular news providers, but not of fake news providers.
The preference for content from friends and acquaintances could possibly have the consequence that Fake News and Co. continue to spread unhindered.
Filter bubbles / echo chambers
In fact – and many people are unaware of this – various studies show that social networks contribute to the fact that you get more news from different senders. A greater plurality of ideas is thus theoretically possible. Now, if there is a narrowing down to friends‘ posts, the risk of filter bubbles and echo chambers could increase.
Groups not in focus
Regarding the danger of further amplifying filter bubble and echo chamber effects, it is also important to take a look at groups. Similar to the so-called dark ads, dialogue and exchange take place there, excluding a greater general public or perhaps without a common foundation of knowledge, where no one has control over who distributes which information and for what purpose. If Zuckerberg wanted to master fake news and propaganda, he must find a way to better control groups.
The same scenario applies to Messenger. If the news feed remodeling consists only of making a cosmetic intervention and removing fake news, propaganda, slander and Hate Speech from the visible zone, then democracy is not much help. After all, messengers like WhatsApp have a huge fake news and propaganda problem. Since the messengers are – for good reason – even encrypted, there is a danger of shadowy publicity forming here.
General information supply
As described above, Facebook has become the number one gatekepper for many users in terms of their media menu. If the proportion of news on Facebook decreases, it is not said that the information will be collected elsewhere.
This concern comes to light a little less badly in Germany, because despite all the persistent rumours and half-truths in this country, social networks play only a minority role when it comes to reading news. In other parts of the western world, however, this is quite different, as Mr Warzel rightly puts it:
It is concerning, though, that at a time of immense turbulence in the world, content from media organizations is being deprioritized,“ Facebook has become an essential piece of infrastructure for public content, and we should be wary of anything that undermines the platform’s utility here. The media is on the frontlines of helping our society navigate the present challenges, and Facebook has an obligation to help its community connect with information as readily as with friends.
Lack of transparency
When Mark Zuckerberg and colleagues announce that in the future only content that is particularly „meaningful“ will appear in the news feed, it is essential to find out what „meaningful“ means.
What is the primary incentive of Zuckerberg?
This article has already shown some motives, reasons and goals for the conversion of Facebook. In the end, however, we do not know one hundred percent what the primary incentive for Zuckerberg is to take this step. So what’s the deal with Facebook here?
Like no other company in the world, Facebook has managed to transfer existing connections between friends and family members into the online world. Facebook is the place of our digital ego. That’s what Facebook is known for. This makes Facebook worth billions. But does that really mean Facebooks future? Or is that just the basis for quite different goals that Facebook actually wants to achieve?
A look at Facebook projects that will play an important role in the future and where the annoying problems with the news feed only disturb:
Machine Learning / AI
According to Amy Webb, Facebook is one of the nine companies that are currently involved in deciding in which direction the world is moving in terms of Machine Learning and AI. Only a few research projects have become known so far with regard to Facebooks AI efforts. That includes:
- Satellite-supported cartography – among other things to discover areas not yet covered by the Internet
- Predicting the needs of users – what users‘ data is needed for and not passive use of Facebook
Personalization of the user experience
- face recognition
- Visual Computing: Recognizing what is in photos, etc.
Blockchain / Cryptocurrency
In his post at the start of the new year, Mark Zuckerberg talked about fixing Facebook. He also addressed topics that might be of interest to Facebook, such as decentralization via blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Both are exciting fields of activity for Facebook – imagine a Facebook currency of your own. With just under two billion members, this would have such an enormous explosive force as no one has ever imagined before.
As you know, last year’s mission for Zuckerberg was to travel as many US states as possible. At the end of the challenge, Zuckerberg knew only one topic: the importance of communities for people.
Funnily enough, this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he had emphasized exactly the importance of communities for Facebook in the new Facebook Mission Statement at the beginning of 2017, but whether it’s about that: Facebook will endeavour to not only portray the digital ego in the future, but also to become a digital we.
While it will probably be impossible to transfer atoms from A to B even in hundreds of years, it will be easy with bits and bytes. Consequently, virtual reality plays an enormous role for the future of Facebook. As you can see on this website, Facebook wants to become the place where friends and colleagues can be met virtually. This requires contacts on Facebook, and trust in the network is what it takes – averting Facebook is not an option.
For years now, Facebook has been working on a wide variety of hardware in secret laboratories. So far, it seems that nothing of this has been ready for the market. Now, however, it is said that Facebook would bring a device onto the market that would primarily enable video telephony. Much of what Facebook tests and develops on the hardware side does not necessarily have to be intended for the end user, as this website reveals.
Too long, didn`t read:
The news feed conversion is probably also a good deal of a renunciation to accept the social responsibility that Facebook never wanted. The question is, what does Facebook really want to optimize for? Facebook does not focus on being a platform for publishers. Rather, Facebook sees an urgent need to encourage users to take action again, because this is the only way for Facebook to collect the necessary data to become a leader in AI and at the same time ensure that it remains an elementary part of private communication for all users.