The end of the social news era?

Getting ready:Media companies are bracing for the changes coming to Facebook’s News Feed.AP

Getting ready:Media companies are bracing for the changes coming to Facebook’s News Feed.AP  

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday that he wanted the social network to focus on “meaningful interaction.” But his idea of what that phrase means is likely to differ from that of news industry executives and editors — and therein lies a conflict.

Media companies are bracing for the changes coming to Facebook’s News Feed — the column that appears when the site or app is opened — that will favour posts by friends over material from news organisations and other businesses.

“Nobody knows exactly what impact it’ll have, but in a lot of ways, it looks like the end of the social news era,” Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, said on Friday. “Everybody’s Facebook traffic has been declining all year, so they’ve been de-emphasising news. But for them to make such a fundamental change in the platform — I don’t think people were really anticipating it.”

Although Facebook users craved conversation and journalists gave them things to talk about, the relationship between the platform and media outlets was imperfect from the start.

Facebook became a news powerhouse with reluctance, and journalism executives allied themselves with it mostly out of necessity, given the 2 billion Facebook users who were often a screen-tap away from an article or video.

Public matters

Over the years, as Facebook and media companies entangled themselves with each other, users’ feeds that had once been filled with chatter about graduations, changing relationship statuses and other subjects belonging to the private sphere morphed into digital spaces rife with public matters — news! — and the endless and endlessly contentious comment threads that went with them.

The uncle you once looked up to, it turned out, had a habit of sharing rude memes that you did not want to see, much less Like.

That led to a problem for Facebook, which needs its users to linger so it can deliver more highly targeted ads — that’s how the company made a net profit of $10.2 billion in 2016.

Facebook says its changes will improve the “well-being” of its users. In an effort to usher in this new mood of online pleasantness, its product teams will drop the former goal of helping people find “relevant content” as they test the “meaningful interactions” thesis.

The shift in strategy comes, not coincidentally, after a year in which Facebook came under governmental scrutiny for its role in spreading misinformation and hate speech.

Online propaganda

Mr. Zuckerberg gave his interview to The Times as his company was preparing for a Wednesday hearing, the second Capitol Hill inquiry into the online spread of extremist propaganda. During hearings in the fall, Facebook told Congress that agents working for a Kremlin-linked company had disseminated content that reached an estimated 126 million users in the United States in 2016.

As a result of Facebook’s attempt to distance itself from an overheated news cycle and make a return to its friends-and-family roots, publishers who depended on it for traffic are likely to find themselves in trouble.

News outlets that have built a strong bond with readers and viewers through other means will be watching closely, to see whether the size of their audiences — and corresponding advertising dollars — will shrink in the coming months.

Big implications

“Changing the terms rapidly is really bringing into focus just how powerful the platforms have become and how the infrastructure is a very difficult place for publishers to operate and navigate,” John Ridding, chief executive of The Financial Times , said.

“That has big implications for how people receive news, where they find it and what the quality of their news is.”

Facebook executives held off-the-record meetings with publications like The Wall Street Journal at the end of last year and spoke of renewing the focus on one-to-one communication among people who know one another over content distributed by publishers, according to a person who was familiar with these discussions but not authorised to speak publicly. Even after the heads-up, however, the specifics announced this week came as a surprise, the person added.NYTIMES

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