In an interview with the New York Times this week, Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg brought forth a radical new objective for his website: less content, more connection. In the year following a swift backlash over Facebook’s growing influence on the world at large—from mental health to the economy, to even, of course, politics—Facebook has found itself at the center of a crisis of self-identity. How does one of the biggest websites on earth, with an estimated 1 billion active users, navigate the tricky terrain of modern culture, where the corporations that we depend on most are the ones we remain most skeptical of?
The answer, according to Zuckerberg, is to “refocus the system” on “products [that] are not just fun but are good for people.” What this means, beyond the traditional hyperbolic tech PR, is a revised algorithm, the first significant overhaul in years to the site’s signature News Feed. In its current iteration, the Facebook News Feed prioritizes the content of major brands and businesses above all else. This is a major income stream for the website, which uses advertising dollars and brand collaboration to fund what is essentially a free venture-turned-public utility.
Zuckerberg, referencing studies that pinpoint Facebook usage as detrimental to personal health, is pushing for a new kind of user engagement that taps into what some might call a more holistic approach to social media. Academic research has concluded that social media is only good for a user’s mental and emotional wellbeing if it is used to “connect with people we care about”. This could mean either as an explicit intention on the part of the user or as a pragmatic goal of the site itself.
Facebook pivots away from traditional identifiable factors
While the site has focused strongly on video content—the bread and butter for publishers and advertisers—Zuckerberg cites content like that as “passive”, namely something to watch, scroll and forget. This is in stark contrast to “meaningful content”, like the posts that receive a lot of user engagement and interaction across your friends’ list. The revised News Feed would prioritize and promote posts that have received more direct interaction, and largely demote posts that only surface interactions, such as the site’s now famous ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ features.
What this means is a radical rejection of Facebook’s identifiable factors, which is, in the scheme of things, a radical pivot. The site received its fair share of public shaming, thanks largely to the effects of “fake news” during the 2016 US Election, but the revamp also comes amid a personal crisis of Facebook’s internal community. In late 2013, Facebook revamped its News Feed to promote what they considered “high-quality articles” over “meme photos hosted somewhere other than Facebook”. For many, this seemed at the time to be a way to keep content circulating in a Facebook-only ecosystem, of ensuring profits and loyalty to the site.
But the company’s current iteration might be a call to action for other social media sites as well. Facebook is pushing for a fuller understanding of the human and the online experience, a tall order for a site that some are professing as more harmful than good. But it points to a revised era, one in which companies take a more intentional look at the way their product is shaping behavior and values.
In a sense, Facebook’s interest in more “organic sharing”—content produced and shared by users’—is born out of a bottom line, a need to keep users exclusively centered in their ecosystem. But it also reflects a growing change in the relationship between people and the products they use. If Facebook is able to incorporate a more holistic analysis and to consider what promotes not just content but contentment, perhaps other sites will follow suit and help Facebook make good on its legacy as a disrupter—in old industries and new.