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Roundtable: Can Facebook Ever Fix the News Feed?

The impossible task is Mark Zuckerberg’s goal this year, and we’re very skeptical

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg started his attempt to make good on his New Year’s resolution to fix Facebook. The CEO pledged to make a “major change” to Facebook’s News Feed, showing people posts from their friends and family with more frequency, and reducing the amount of public content in the feed. Facebook has become perhaps the most important digital publisher in the world, and this change could have a devastating impact on online media, as many outlets rely on Facebook as a platform to get their content in front of human eyeballs.

For some, it’s a welcome change. “Media will feel the sting, but it’s for the best,” The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer wrote. Motherboard’s Jason Koebler had a similar take, arguing that Facebook’s decision to deprioritize news might crater publishers’ traffic in the short term, but it should also help media companies wean themselves off of chasing Facebook virality as a business model.

Other journalists were less enthused. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editor-in-chief claimed the change would “[hurt] the nation” by allowing people to continue to share false information while making it harder to find news from credible sources. And as The New York Times recently noted, when Facebook experimented with removing professional journalism sites from users’ main News Feeds in Bolivia, Slovakia, and Cambodia, many local publishers felt that it made the spread of false information worse.

Do you think this change to the News Feed will help or hurt us?Kate Knibbs

Molly McHugh: As humans or publishers?

Knibbs: Since we all work for The Ringer, it’s two separate questions for us. Will it hurt us as humans? And will it hurt us as employees of a media company?

McHugh: Right. Well. I think, as media employees, it’s probably definitely bad, and I’m incredibly uncertain about what it really means for us as people. I cannot remember a News Feed update where Facebook DIDN’T say it was going to promote content from our friends and family. It’s an incredibly popular refrain.

Justin Charity: I’m not even sure Facebook thinks it will help us as humans, though the company seems to concede that it will hurt publishers. Facebook’s motivations here seem obscure. I have a hard time believing that a psych study about online engagement and personal well-being is what gets the ball rolling here.

Victor Luckerson: If the company is serious, it would be a massive change in purpose. The site has spent several years courting news publishers and encouraging public discussions through features like Instant Articles and trending topics. Facebook is now the place where people go to discuss what’s happening in the world, often using internet articles as a jumping-off point. You can’t remove “news” from the equation and expect people to suddenly go back to just posting baby pictures. But all of Facebook’s statements about this change are incredibly vague, and I’m not yet convinced this is so much more radical than previous attempts to clamp down on clickbait and the like.

Rubie Edmondson: It’s bad for media and publishers who have put all of their eggs into the Facebook basket. And there are plenty of them. I hope this will be a wake-up call to every media entity that’s pivoted their strategy 15 times over the last three years at Facebook’s behest.

McHugh: I think Facebook’s intentions are more serious than past attempts to curb clickbait, but I don’t think the execution will change much. I think Facebook can control what shows up, but changing how people think about Facebook and its purposes is an impossible challenge. At the very least, it’s a much, much harder one.

Charity: The New York Times said: “Conversations stemming from live videos, celebrities’ posts, private groups and other highly interactive post types will be among those highlighted on the new News Feed.” My greatest fear is that this results in Mike Cernovich becoming a Facebook star of some sort. Deprioritizing web articles isn’t going to depoliticize Facebook, if that’s what Facebook’s thinking.

Edmondson: Here’s what I don’t get: “Fake news” is inherently designed to be ultra-engaging and shareable. That’s how it rose to prominence on Facebook in the first place. And as Victor said, you can’t expect people to just go back to posting baby pictures overnight. Our family and friends are still going to share false information and “news” items from dubious sources. People are going to engage with it—a lot—driving its appearance in the News Feed. And Facebook still hasn’t found an actual solution to this problem. Does it even think it’s a problem?

Knibbs: The more we talk about it, the more I think that the only positive outcome of this change might be publishers becoming less reliant on Facebook. But that won’t stop bad information from proliferating. It might even increase it.

McHugh: Right. We aren’t suddenly going to feel inclined to just share videos of our dogs. (Although I encourage that.) But it also has to do with what Facebook USED to be. It was for college kids to post dumb drunk pictures and find out who was in your class! Those kids grew up and also everyone else was invited to use this site, and it’s only natural that the use case and discussion topics have changed.

Edmondson: Facebook already HAS the platform to share cute baby pictures and dog videos. It’s called Instagram!

McHugh: Facebook fed that, and now here we are. The backpedal isn’t going to work.

Luckerson: To me, it’s less that Facebook used to be for college kids than that it was for groups of local communities who were familiar with each other and their interests/values. Facebook could have scaled up with that same model using private networks, but the company chose to create a global water cooler. You can’t go back to the old Facebook model of intimate/frivolous/personal discussions after so many years of being a “town square.” Or, you can, but it would take a LOT of work and probably make less money, so why would Facebook do it?

Charity: The fact that this all seems preposterously obvious, that devolving Facebook to its 2000s user dynamic isn’t going to work, makes me wonder: Is there a good, alternative theory of what Facebook is aiming for here?

Knibbs: The conversation around Facebook has radically changed in the past year. It’s not a good guy anymore. It is in PR crisis, and this is a step to make itself look like it is trying to fix its problems.

Charity: Do you think it will work? I do.

Knibbs: Well, looking at the New York Times report about how the spread of false information got worse after Facebook tested deprioritization, I’m not so sure people will be satisfied with this effort.

Charity: I think Congress and federal regulators may be too stupid and disinterested to track the relevant shifts over time unless another presidential election gets hacked or something.

Luckerson: I definitely think Zuckerberg’s 2017 manifesto remains the blueprint for Facebook’s future, regardless of the company’s short-term announcements. Facebook wants to be the conduit for online communication, which includes news. It may be taking a step back, but it’s not giving up.

McHugh: Yeah, I don’t believe that Facebook will scale back. Zuckerberg doesn’t want Facebook to get smaller, and I don’t think the Facebook PR team is lying to us about wanting to fix Facebook. But what it’s saying now doesn’t line up with the company’s overall goal to be the biggest communication tool in the world and to connect everyone globally.

Charity: “Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation.” This is a funny sentence from the manifesto, because at this point, I think of Facebook as a company permanently lurching back and forth between promoting divisiveness and promoting isolation.

So, if you were put in charge of the News Feed, how would you fix it? Is it even fixable?

Knibbs: (Besides, obviously, making every Ringer article go to the top of everyone’s feed every day.)

Edmondson: I’d make the “feed” on the homepage for friends, family, and group posts only, hearkening back to the 2000s glory days. Move “News” to its own tab and only allow select publishers, similar to Apple News’s model. Make another tab for Lifestyle/Entertainment. (Tasty videos are great! Doug the Pug is a delight!) However, this would require an actual admission from Facebook that it’s a media company—and a huge investment into that belief!—so the chances of it ever happening are roughly zero.

Luckerson: First off, I think the company should bring back the manual sliders that let you adjust the proliferation of different kinds of content, which it dumped back in like 2006. It should pair that with some kind of usage metrics that help you improve your media diet, the way the pedometer on the iPhone gets people to walk more.

Charity: Victor think he Doctor Who, traveling all the way back to 2006. The nerve.

Luckerson: A big problem with Facebook is that it’s a time sink, and no one has any idea how they’re wasting their time on the platform. And yeah, ’06 to ’08ish is probably peak Facebook. Definitely any period before the Like button.

Edmondson: I wish I could bottle up the feeling of 17-year-old me receiving my college email account and FINALLY being able to register for a Facebook profile. It feels so retro now.

McHugh: There wasn’t even a news feed then! We just had WALLS.

Charity: We were all pawns in a global conspiracy.

Luckerson: It’s not about the omnipresent digital monolith we accidentally helped engineer and can no longer control. It’s about the Facebook friends we made along the way.