Facebook imagines a News Feed without the news [The Interface]

Casey Newton
Oct 24, 2017 · 10 min read

Over the past 18 months, the news has given Facebook nothing but trouble. The problems began in May 2016, when Gizmodo published its incendiary report alleging that Facebook “routinely suppressed conservative news” from its Trending Topics module. After that outcry came the 2016 election and its aftermath, which caught the company flat-footed and ill-equipped to handle fast-spreading fake news. More recently, publishers began to abandon its Instant Articles product, disappointed that the fast-loading format failed to generate as much revenue as traditional article links.

It’s enough to make you wonder what Facebook would look like if it got rid of news content altogether. And it turns out that Facebook has been wondering, too!

The Guardian:

A new system being trialled in six countries including Slovakia, Serbia and Sri Lanka sees almost all non-promoted posts shifted over to a secondary feed, leaving the main feed focused entirely on original content from friends, and adverts.

Publishers in these countries can still force their filthy links into the News Feed by paying to promote a post, but otherwise the Slovaks and Serbians are seeing nothing but engagements and baby photos. News is relegated to a separate feed, similar to the “Explore” tab that recently rolled out in America.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Facebook has basically recreated … Instagram? Instagram’s all-photo and -video feed has been something of an oasis in our troubled times, and it’s not hard to imagine why Facebook wouldn’t want to see whether it could run that play in the big blue app.

Says Facebook:

“With all of the possible stories in each person’s feed, we always work to connect people with the posts they find most meaningful. People have told us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family, so we are testing two separate feeds, one as a dedicated space with posts from friends and family and another as a dedicated space for posts from Pages.”

What effect does this have on publishers? You can probably guess! Here’s Filip Struhári, a journalist at the Slovakian Dennik N, with the early word:

Pages are seeing dramatic drops in organic reach. Reach of several asked Facebook pages fell on Thursday and Friday by two-thirds compared to previous days.

Sixty biggest Slovak media pages have 4 times fewer interactions (likes, comments, shares) since the test. It looks like the effect in Guatemala and Cambodia is the same.

If you’re a publisher, this looks like a catastrophe in the making. My own feelings about this move escalated gradually today from “that’s a weird test” to “that is potentially very significant” to “oh my god let’s hope this newsletter takes off, and soon.”

In a tweet, News Feed honcho Adam Mosseri presented it rather clinically, as a kind of science experiment: “It’s about friends’ personal stories more than links — question is do people learn and enjoy using a separate feed for public content or not?”

The news from Slovakia suggests that no, they do not. And that’s consistent with what happened the last time Facebook introduced a separate feed for public content — it was called Facebook Paper, and hardly anybody used it before it was shut down last summer.

In any case, I find it extremely hard to square this test with Facebook’s separate, and apparently earnest, efforts to support journalism — and to give Instant Articles a publisher-friendly reboot. Facebook knows the power of defaults — and surely it can anticipate how publishers will suffer if their links were relegated to a standalone content zone.

At the same time, it could dramatically reduce the incentives for people to create fake news and to share it. The interests of publishers and democracy may not, in this case, be aligned. And if it turns out that people spend more time in a news-free News Feed, the interests of publishers may not count for much.

Toward the end of the day, Mosseri published a blog post trying to play down the significance of the test. “There is no current plan to roll this out beyond these test countries or to charge pages on Facebook to pay for all their distribution in News Feed or Explore,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, some have mistakenly made that interpretation — but that was not our intention.”

And yet, if the test is successful, why wouldn’t Facebook roll it out beyond the test countries? The question answers itself.

I suspect Facebook will learn a lot from this test and abandon it. But I’m lousy at seeing into the future. In the meantime, it’s another good reason for me to build a newsletter audience — and for publishers everywhere to have a plan B.


Democracy

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21techhearing1 facebookjumbo

Meet the People Who Will Defend Google, Facebook and Twitter Before Lawmakerswww.nytimes.com

We’re nine days away from tech companies’ testimony before Congress. Here are they people who will be speaking for them; Facebook’s representative will be general counsel Colin Stretch:

Mr. Stretch, 48, became Facebook’s general counsel in 2013 and has led the social network’s internal review on foreign interference on its platform. He joined Facebook in 2010 and led negotiations of its settlement in 2011 with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that Facebook violated its privacy promises to users.

Up ads facebookjumbo
Up ads facebookjumbo

Why the Fact-Checking at Facebook Needs to Be Checkedwww.nytimes.com

Does labeling a Facebook post as a hoax have any positive effect? Brendan Nyhan takes a look and finds mixed results. Here’s the good news, though:

My students at Dartmouth College and I find that the effects of Facebook-style “disputed” banners on the perceived accuracy of false headlines are larger than those Mr. Pennycook and Mr. Rand observed. The proportion of respondents rating a false headline as “somewhat” or “very accurate” in our study decreased to 19 percent with the standard Facebook “disputed” banner, from 29 percent in the unlabeled condition. It goes down even further, to 16 percent, when the warning instead states that the headline is “rated false.”

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23dc inquiry1 sub facebookjumbo v2

Hopes Dim for Congressional Russia Inquiries as Parties Clashwww.nytimes.com

Reading about the deep divisions in Congress about its various investigations into Russian election interference, I wonder whether the anticipated regulatory backlash against big tech companies will ever arise. Bipartisan support falls apart in all sorts of ways, as this article lays out.

Particularly in the House, partisan fighting is likely to undermine whatever conclusions the committee reaches. One lawmaker said the committee would probably produce two reports. The first, written by Republicans, is expected to forcefully say there is no proof that anyone around Mr. Trump worked with Russia to tip the election. A Democratic report will probably raise unanswered questions and say that the committee was never fully committed to answering them.

Business

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00talentwar 1 facebookjumbo

Tech Giants Are Paying Huge Salaries for Scarce A.I. Talentwww.nytimes.com

If you are very good at AI, Facebook will pay you a LOT of money. And then Google will offer you more money, which will in turn lead Facebook to offer you even more money.

There are a few catalysts for the huge salaries. The auto industry is competing with Silicon Valley for the same experts who can help build self-driving cars. Giant tech companies like Facebook and Google also have plenty of money to throw around and problems that they think A.I. can help solve, like building digital assistants for smartphones and home gadgets and spotting offensive content.

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Bn vr805 keywor soc 20171019162806

How Facebook’s Master Algorithm Powers the Social Networkwww.wsj.com

Christopher Mims interviews Joaquin Candela, Facebook’s head of applied machine learning. My favorite nugget is about the introduction of a ranked feed to Instagram last year:

At Instagram, three or four engineers got the job done in less than five weeks …. The team was able to clone the existing News Feed algorithm, then tweak it to suit Instagram.

In important ways, Instagram really just Facebook without links. And if you’re curious what Facebook would look like without links … keep reading!

Facebook690
Facebook690

Facebook leases 80,000 square feet in Los Angeles Countytherealdeal.com

It looks like this is where Facebook will build studios for making original content, allowing it to compete with publishers in a new and exciting way, according to this report.

Facebook is building out a portion of the newly developed campus to fit a fledgling, specialized division of the company that could be related to creating original content, sources said.

Elsewhere

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39cb6207 8918 4d6f 862e 7c818ba563ce

Snap’s Misfire on Spectacleswww.theinformation.com

The Information: “Snap badly overestimated demand for its Spectacles and now has hundreds of thousands of unsold units sitting in warehouses, either fully assembled or in parts, according to two people close to the company.”

This is troublesome for several reasons, and the biggest one is that Snap is low on cash: it’s burning about $400 million a month, and only has $2.8 billion in the bank. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel frequently dismisses competitors by insisting his company has a unique relationship with its users — but it’s still subject to the laws of financial gravity, and it’s slowly being squeezed.

Despite all the negative chatter about the Spectacles disappointment today, I’d argue the product was still a net positive for the company. If offered investors a compelling new growth story on the eve of Snap’s IPO, and the product itself earned mostly positive reviews. It recast the debate around smart glasses entirely, and if a version two ever does arrive, it will be hotly anticipated. So the fact that the company had supply-chain problems with its first major hardware release ought not be considered so surprising, or so damning.

(Still, assuming this is true, Spiegel probably shouldn’t have told Walter Isaacson that sales had “exceeded expectations.”)

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1200x798

Ex-Twitter Engineer Seeks to Show Women Can Climb Only So Highwww.bloomberg.com

Bloomberg:

The way Tina Huang tells it, the path to her resignation from Twitter Inc. was a Kafkaesque experience. She said she was denied a promotion, led to believe her coding skills were inferior, asked to take a leave of absence, and scolded for taking that leave.

Two years ago, she sued, contending that the company systematically thwarts the advancement of female engineers. Since then, she’s been gathering data on gender and pay for her peers there and says she can prove Twitter stacks the deck. By January, she plans to ask a state judge for permission to represent 133 female engineers at Twitter, in what would be the first group case of its kind in Silicon Valley if certified.

Launches

Snapchat referral traffic
Snapchat referral traffic

Snapchat dangles referral traffic with link sharing from other appstechcrunch.com

If Facebook does eliminate news links from the News Feed, this will probably feel more important than it does right now.

Takes

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Img 0019 1024x768

Why Facebook Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Buy tbhstratechery.com

Ben Thompson makes a persuasive case that the Federal Trade Commission is out of its depth when it comes to regulating social networks.

Requiring Facebook to offer its social graph to any would-be competitor as a condition of acquiring tbh would be a good outcome; unfortunately, it is perhaps the most unlikely, given the FTC’s commitment to unfettered privacy (without a consideration of the impact on competition).

What shouldn’t be allowed is what Facebook clearly hopes — and suggests — will happen: no regulatory review at all. The FTC has the power, and it’s time to use it.

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Twitter app e1508523560422

Bots are becoming a danger to Twitter’s existence, and Wikipedia might have the solutionqz.com

Quarts proposes that Twitter bots should have to meet the same basic requirements as the bots on Wikipedia:

Developers must demonstrate that their bot is:
1. harmless
2. useful
3. does not consume resources unnecessarily
4. performs only tasks for which there is consensus
5. and carefully adheres to relevant policies and guidelines

Works for me.

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171020 collins jack dorsey hero c6oos5

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Retweeted Alleged Russian Trollswww.thedailybeast.com

“This person inadvertently retweeted a foreign menace” is my favorite new content genre of 2017.

And finally

On Friday we were overjoyed to learn that LinkedIn is exploring the idea of making original shows. I asked you to send me your LinkedIn show pitches, and Interface reader Dave Collins sent us this pitch for “Down Round.”

Description: co-founding couples, after experiencing a downturn in their inane tech businesses, have to find a new office for their downsized company. Hosted by an adorable couple a la “Fixer Upper”, these cofounders have to pick a new office to house their demoralized employees. After viewing three very similar choices, they pick an office and the annoyingly cheerful couple remodels it. Every episode the new office looks the same because it’s a fucking office. Everyone leaves slightly disappointed. Sponsored by LinkedIn Premium.

Thank you, Dave, and consider your project greenlighted.

Talk to me

Tips, comments, and responses to casey@theverge.com.

    Casey Newton

    Written by

    Silicon Valley editor at The Verge. Tweets about tech. Of all the reporters covering Silicon Valley, I am the tallest.

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