Facebook is changing the algorithm that decides what you see in your News Feed—yes, again. And for the first time, it’s publishing a philosophical statement of the values it wants that algorithm to prioritize.
The change is relatively straightforward, although it will probably stir some controversy anyway. Facebook says it is tweaking the settings of its news feed software to give a little more weight to posts shared by actual people—e.g., your friends, family, and others you interact with a lot on Facebook. Inevitably, giving more weight to one type of post means giving less to others. So you might see slightly fewer posts from groups, media outlets, brand pages, and other sources that are not actual humans whom you know in real life.
When we launched News Feed in 2006, it was hard to imagine the challenge we now face: far too much information for any one person to consume. In the decade since, more than a billion people have joined Facebook, and today they share a flood of stories every day. That’s why stories in News Feed are ranked—so that people can see what they care about first, and don’t miss important stuff from their friends. If the ranking is off, people don’t engage, and leave dissatisfied. So one of our most important jobs is getting this ranking right.
As part of that process, we often make improvements to News Feed, and when we do, we rely on a set of core values. These values—which we’ve been using for years—guide our thinking, and help us keep the central experience of News Feed intact as it evolves. In our continued efforts to be transparent about how we think about News Feed, we want to share those values with you.
Interestingly, the company listed the first three values in a particular order, making it clear which takes precedence. The full statement is here, and it’s worth reading for anyone interested in understanding how Facebook thinks about itself and its goals for the News Feed. But I’ve listed below the seven values the company elucidated, starting with the first three, which together form the company’s definition of “meaningful content.” In parenthesis are my brief thoughts on what each one means.
- Friends and family come first. (Despite suggestions to the contrary, Facebook still sees itself a social network first and a media platform second.)
- Your feed should inform. (Facebook takes itself seriously as a destination for news, not just fluff.)
- Your feed should entertain. (Facebook admits it is also a destination for fluff.)
Now, you could be excused for thinking that Facebook’s News Feed has just one value, and that’s to keep you coming back to Facebook, so the company can keep minting money. There’s some truth in that. It’s a for-profit company, and from a business standpoint, the News Feed’s chief purpose is to captures people’s attention, collect data on their interests, and show them advertisements.
Few will be surprised by the second and third values on the list—to inform and to entertain—but it’s telling that Facebook puts “inform” first. Ever since the social network become overrun with viral games, listicles, and quizzes several years ago, its leaders have been wary of the perception that it’s fundamentally a waste of time. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, top deputy Chris Cox, and Mosseri all seem to genuinely believe in Facebook’s power as a source of information, whether that takes the form of news, commentary, or how-to videos about cooking. This may be another case where the company is prioritizing what users say they want over what they actually tend to click, like, or watch.
Finally, it shouldn’t escape notice that while Facebook does believe in giving users some control over their experience, that’s not the News Feed’s top priority. As much as Facebook has been surveying and listening to users, it isn’t about to hand them the keys to their own News Feed rankings.