Facebook goes back to basics: People

The company has realized how hard it is to keep people both happy and informed.

Over the past couple of years, Facebook has frequently tweaked its News Feed algorithms to deliver stories that are relevant and of interest to you. It was a strategy that, until now, seemed to be the way forward for the site. But that's all about to change, as Facebook has announced that there are big adjustments coming to its News Feed. In the months ahead, the platform will start to prioritize posts from people you care about, like friends and family, over stories or videos from publishers. Users may react positively, but publications that rely on Facebook to drive traffic won't be happy.

In a blog post, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg said the goal is to ensure that users feel happy when they're on the site, something that's easier to accomplish if you're seeing baby pictures rather than news articles about Russia investigations. During the early days of Facebook, the focus was simply on communication between friends, but during the past couple of years, it began to actively promote and push content from media companies into users' feeds. It's something Facebook had to do in order to keep people on the site for longer periods of times and, of course, gave the social network a solid source of revenue in the process.

For better or worse, the platform quickly became more of a news curator. And while that may have helped it grow as a business and become the most powerful social network, with more than 2 billion monthly active users, it also meant the company strayed from its roots. By bringing the focus back to interactions between friends and family, Facebook is simply going back to basics. The latest News Feed tweaks are attributed to recent user feedback, noting that people have said posts from businesses, brands and media are crowding out the "personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other."

Facebook hopes that by eliminating some of that media noise and creating more personal connections, people will stress less. "Research shows that strengthening our relationships," Zuckerberg said, "improves our well-being and happiness." He added that although he expects the amount of time people spend on Facebook will go down, he believes keeping users in a good mood will be better for the business and community in the long term -- but he didn't say how, exactly, that's going to happen. It seems the fear is that, while users may spend more time on the site now, the negative atmosphere could eventually drive them away.

Though news articles or videos will still show up on your feed every now and then, Facebook is making it clear that from now on the priority is going to be to content from friends, family and groups you're part of. That's a punch in the gut for publishers who have built their strategy around Facebook.

Of course, it's no secret that Facebook is still under scrutiny for its role in Russia's meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Facebook became the preferred platform for Kremlin-sponsored trolls to spread misinformation (aka fake news) and dubious ads, as part of a vicious (and successful) campaign designed to undermine our democracy and encourage hostility among the American people. Last year, the company revealed to Congress that over 126 million users were exposed to that content in the lead-up to the election, in what was a major blow to Facebook's reputation.

Although Facebook doesn't say this is the reason for the change, it's not hard to imagine that what happened in 2016 helped shape the upcoming News Feed. Fewer negative articles and more positive, personal posts could create a healthier community. It remains to be seen if the changes will actually help prevent another major headache for Facebook, but at the very least it will make it feel like less of a media company -- something it keeps claiming not to be, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

"Some news helps start conversations on important issues," Zuckerberg said. "But too often today, watching videos, reading news or getting a page update is just a passive experience." The problem he highlights isn't exclusive to Facebook, either: Similarly, Twitter has become exhausting and toxic, thanks to nonstop political bickering and harassment. If you're Facebook or Twitter, that's definitely not what you want to hear.

Zuckerberg also said his team has found that users interact more with live videos as opposed to regular ones, perhaps suggesting that publishers should focus more on that type of content going forward. A different byproduct of this is that Facebook can now make a bigger push for Watch, its original-video-content platform, where it has more control over the kind of stuff its users are viewing. Coincidentally, there have been reports that the company is prepared to invest $1 billion on TV programming, hoping to rival the likes of Amazon and Netflix in developing original shows.

Ultimately, Facebook claims it wants users to be happy, even if that happiness comes at the expense of its bottom line. "We're losing hope," an undisclosed Facebook media partner told Digiday about the overhaul coming to the News Feed. For years, it's felt as if Facebook had prioritized publishers and brands over its users, but now it seems like it's changing tactics. As usual, there will always be someone unhappy with change. This time around, it was done with users in mind. But knowing Facebook, don't be surprised if in a few years the tables are flipped. Again.