Facebook's oft-repeated mantra is that it's all about fostering relationships for its users. Over the years, however, the platform's ubiquity — and an overwhelming market share that's upended digital media and advertising as we know it — has led many to hail it as the next great news frontier, the antidote to diminishing ad revenue and a print industry in decline.
Turns out, Facebook would rather show you pictures of your sister's kitten.
The latest change to the social network's News Feed algorithm, announced today, will boost posts shared by "friends" — individuals — at the expense of those shared by "pages" — publishers.
"Overall, we anticipate that this update may cause reach and referral traffic to decline for some Pages," wrote Lars Backstrom, Facebook's engineering director, in a blog post. "We encourage Pages to post things that their audience are likely to share with their friends."
Presumably, most publishers were not posting content that was deliberately un-shareable, so it's unclear who the real winners and losers will be as a result of the change.
Facebook has been aggressively recruiting publishers for its new live video feature, so it's unlikely that those posts will henceforth be buried by baby pictures. The same goes for Instant Articles, which Facebook says load up to ten times faster than external links and are now open to all publishers.
The announcement will surely be cause for concern among publishers, who are becoming increasingly reliant on Facebook as a distribution platform. It also highlights the inherent risks taken on by media companies when investing heavily in a platform whose mission may not be perfectly aligned with their own. Just today, Refinery29 announced that it is assembling a ten-person team devoted entirely to Facebook Live Video.
So why make the change?
"Facebook was built on the idea of connecting people with their friends and family. That is still the driving principle of News Feed today," wrote VP of product management, Adam Mosseri, in a separate post. "Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook."
Only after completing that first step of connecting peers with one another, wrote Mosseri, is the News Feed expected to serve as a platform for informing and entertaining.
The announcement arrives at a time when Facebook has become more of a content distribution platform than the social network Mark Zuckerberg launched from his Harvard dorm in 2004. Personal sharing is down, with users instead turning to platforms like Snapchat and Facebook-owned Instagram to connect with friends.
Additionally, Mosseri's blog featured what is undoubtedly a response to recent allegations that Facebook deliberately censored conservative viewpoints in its Trending Topics section.
Under the heading, "A Platform for All Ideas," Mosseri wrote, "We are not in the business of picking which issues the world should read about. We are in the business of connecting people and ideas — and matching people with the stories they find most meaningful. Our integrity depends on being inclusive of all perspectives and view points, and using ranking to connect people with the stories and sources they find the most meaningful and engaging."
When precisely the latest algorithm change — Facebook's second in three months — will go into effect remains unclear.