Tech Talk: Facebook's News U-Turn

Facebook is one of the most adaptable and viewed websites in the world today with over 1.4 billion regular users. Thanks to this significant audience, it is also one of the most read news websites on the planet and the company has the potential to wield a lot of influence: something that has not escaped the attention of traditional journalist businesses. Many of Facebook's 1.44 billion regular users have used the service to absorb their daily news flow rather differently compared with just a few years ago. Over the years, Facebook has moved towards providing users with worldwide news and away from the friends and family news it was originally used for. Earlier in the week the company announced a change to how it renders our Facebook News Feed to include more of the personal connection stuff and less of the bigger stories circulating in the news.

Facebook's way of including world news stories into our News Feed has been supported by several technologies the company has introduced. These include Instant Articles, which is a way for businesses to promote their stories on the mobile platform with little delay for readers. Basically, articles load very quickly. History tells us that people do not wish to wait for the news. Another big Facebook push is Facebook's Live Video services, which is a business-sponsored service created by publications and sent straight to users. But, this week's change reduces the emphasis on traditional journalism and instead puts the news feed right back to serving up baby pictures, what your uncle had for supper the other day, and your buddies' best night out ever. The adjustment to Facebook News Feed algorithm is seen as something of a u-turn and rightfully so, but Facebook are taking the opinion that local news is what people are really interested in. The change in approach has caught some competitor companies and industry pundits on the hop.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps to some of our younger audience, it may be a radical departure but to those of us who remember a time before the Facebook logo was appearing on almost every advertising board, Facebook is putting the news back to "the way things were." To the days before we had more TV stations than buttons on our remote control, to the time when we would perhaps catch a headline or two on a newspaper and talk about it with colleagues or loved ones, rather than fire up a smartphone to flick through a news feed on our smartphone whilst avoiding eye contact with anybody else (a rather worrying sensation if one drives to work, I'm sure!). The news has become very much a packaged, commercialized product in the years of mass media communication. News is backed up by multi-million dollar contracts and sophisticated algorithms designed to determine what readers are most likely to want to see both in terms of article and accompanying advertisement. Facebook also aggressively competes for the advertising dollars and this week's change in the News Feed could be a very smart move indeed.

Not all of Facebook's moves mirror this action, however. The company has been accused of unfairly influencing the Trending Topics feature, which is purported to show the world what news stories are trending among users at that particular time, and let us not forget that Facebook's prior changes to how the News Feed worked hurt how the social network worked. Interaction and engagement between users was reduced: people weren't seeing those baby pictures and so weren't commenting and engaging with friends and family. Facebook's sophisticated profiling algorithms did not take into account that people were trying to use Facebook to connect with loved ones rather than reading the news.

Facebook showed how adaptable it could be by changing the News Feed overnight. This move could potentially have pulled the rug out from those news publishers working to tap into Facebook's user profiling algorithm and resulting News Feed. We may see these companies scramble to change how their business model works, because stories on Facebook are now more likely to be directly shared by users rather than presented as part of a profiling exercise. However Facebook has switched its News Feed, it's going back to its origins of being a person to person social network. The more interesting, better written news stories are more likely to be shared and read by users.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.