Friday 19 January 2018
Facebook’s News Feed changes are positive PR for the social media firm. But they are inspired by business calculations rather than altruism, argues journalism lecturer Dr Graham Bond.
Back to basics. That was the message from Facebook last Thursday. Away with content from PR pros; away with meddlers and peddlers; away with addiction. Back to family and friends; back to conversation; back to emotional ‘well-being’.
The cynical response is to say that this is brazen PR pushback after a dreadful year in headlines, from congressional hearings into Russia’s use of Facebook to interfere in US elections, deepening worries over fake news, concerns over the mental health impact of excessive scrolling, and a general enslavement of professional news media.
Says Zuck: “I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down.”
Did Zuckerberg last week become the first ever CEO of a publicly-traded company to recommend its customers steer clear? Not quite. “I also expect the time you do spend on Facebook will be more valuable,” he adds, with notable ambiguity. Valuable to whom exactly?
Facebook’s business is not simply getting you on-site and keeping you there. It is in getting to know you really, really well so that you can be better ‘connected’ with just the right kind of advertiser. The gradual increase in professional content appearing in News Feeds over the last decade has no doubt improved Facebook’s bottom line, and transformed media ecologies across the world (China an obvious exception), but it may well have made those data signals fuzzier. As purveyors of clickbait know well, ‘engagement’ can be manufactured; ‘authenticity’ - a favourite Facebook term - is harder to come by.
A parallel announcement from Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s Head of News Feed, argued the change was necessary partly because “space in News Feed is limited”. This is worth pondering, not least because it’s so obviously untrue. With endless user generated content from 1.37 billion daily users, and no hard edge to the page, that feed can run. And run. And run. What obviously cannot run so freely is an individual’s attention.
‘Well-being’ cropped up a few times in Zuckerberg’s post and seems to recognise the concern that Facebook has an addictive but potentially stultifying - even destabilising - quality. An astute commentary by Quartz’ Paul Smalera on the weekend drew similarities between the effects of Facebook and illegal Class-A drugs. ‘Users who abandon social media are unlikely to return, while a cut-down dose of its drug might keep feed junkies hanging around longer, searching for that scrolling high,’ he writes. ‘Ask any dealer - cutting the product is a better scenario than having users overdose and turn up dead.’ Cynical? Sure. But probably fair.
Particularly interesting is that Zuckerberg’s January 11th update, which received significant media coverage around the world, is in substance little different from a far less trumpeted declaration of the company’s News Feed ‘values’, released last June. What seems to be different this time around is the message’s target. This felt like an announcement addressed at people whose job it is to use Facebook, rather than end users. The announcement has drawn most commentary from PR and marketing professionals charged with using Facebook ‘Pages’ to reach target audiences. Strategies and techniques learned over recent years may have to be subtly relearned, or even abandoned.
What the announcement, and response, has done is make (somewhat) plain just how critical Facebook has become in providing a gateway for professional publishers and advertising executives. It also marks Facebook out as a company determined to stay ahead of building pressures from above and below - government and users - who see in Facebook a company which may have gone beyond healthy ‘disruption’ of the media and social life in general, towards a slightly unsettling domination. In ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Silicon Valley, faith in technology’s capacity for social good shows no sign of waning; the tone of Zuckerberg’s post makes this clear. However, the money men on the other side of the US will be watching closely. If changes affect profitability, you can expect a slightly less cuddly-feely announcement next time around, or, more likely, a reversal which is not publicised at all. After all, Facebook’s algorithm remains a black box. It is certain to stay that way.