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Make Facebook Social Again

By Evan Niu, CFA - Oct 24, 2017 at 1:59PM

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Over the years, Facebook (META 1.70%) has become incrementally less social than it used to be. The platform has become increasingly populated by publishers looking to distribute articles and other content, which is interspersed with pictures of what your cousin's boyfriend's roommate just ate for lunch. For example, approximately 67% of Americans now get some of their news on social media platforms, up from 62% last year, according to the Pew Research Center.

Well, Facebook wants to be more social again, and is now testing out a new way to distinguish between publisher content and social updates from friends and family.

News Feed on mobile

Image source: Facebook.

A tale of two feeds

The company is experimenting with separating its core News Feed into two distinct feeds: one that only includes personal updates from friends and family, and another called "Explore" that would include posts from Pages (including publishers sharing articles). It's a little confusing since that the new Explore Feed is different than the other version of Explore Feed that is more broadly available. If you're not familiar with the existing Explore Feed, which focuses on content discovery outside of your existing network, that's because it's buried in the sidebar.

It's a small-scale test that Facebook is only running in a handful of countries (Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia). Some users in those countries noticed the change, and Facebook clarified in a blog post that it was just testing the idea with no current plans to roll it out beyond the specified markets. Slovakian journalist Filip Struharik was one of the first to document the change, while also noting an adverse impact on traffic.

Facebook Head of News Feed Adam Mosseri said the test is based on user feedback: "People tell us they want an easier way to see posts from friends and family."

Facebook can't take News Feed changes lightly

The test has important implications for how Pages and advertisers would utilize the social network, according to Reuters. Pages that want to run ads in the personal News Feed would need to pay up, but Facebook emphasized that it had no plans to require Pages to "pay for all their distribution." That's a relief for publishers, since such an ask would be incredibly onerous.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the News Feed, which is effectively Facebook's most important core product, and the algorithms that power it. Facebook often tests out new features and services, collecting import data around user activity before assessing whether or not to deploy the change more broadly. A test of this nature has to be small, in order to minimize any potential disruption in the core experience and the ad business.

The problem is that Facebook doesn't appear to have given users an advance warning, and Mosseri's response was only posted after the fact. Users may not have realized that some of the content was being migrated to the new Explore Feed, which could explain the drop in traffic and engagement. That could also potentially skew the data that Facebook is gathering. It's a bizarre oversight for a company that knows how important it is to build user behaviors for new initiatives.

Mosseri concludes, "As with all tests we run, we may learn new things that lead to additional tests in the coming months so we can better understand what works best for people and publishers."

Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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