Mike Isaac

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Facebook Wants to Be a Newspaper. Facebook Users Have Their Own Ideas.

Facebook News Feed Event

Most people think of Facebook in a similar way: It’s a place to share photos of your kids. It’s a way to keep up with friends and family members. It’s a place to share a funny, viral story or LOLcat picture you’ve stumbled upon on the Web.

This is not how Facebook thinks of Facebook. In Mark Zuckerberg’s mind, Facebook should be “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” He wants a design-and-content mix that plays up a wide array of “high-quality” stories and photos.

The gap between these two Facebooks — the one its managers want to see, and the one its users like using today — is starting to become visible. Earlier this year, Facebook users rejected a redesign that Zuckerberg announced with much fanfare. Now Facebook is adjusting its algorithms to emphasize content that it thinks readers should see, which will push down some of the stuff that’s currently popular.

Which version of Facebook will win out?

What Facebook Wants

Let’s begin with Facebook’s vision of the News Feed, which can be traced primarily back to two men: Vice President of Product Chris Cox and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Over the past two years, according to sources, Cox has been campaigning internally for a sort of “ideal” News Feed: It would be part of your daily morning ritual, something that you’d open and scan much the same way you’d read a newspaper.

Facebook Newsfeed PhotoTeams explored a number of user interface and product mock-ups with this idealized form of user behavior in mind. It was all housed under an umbrella project broadly blanketed under the term “Reader” (an initiative that was widely misreported as a Google Reader clone earlier this year), and many of its early prototypes looked slick — a “refined, highbrow” experience, as it was put to me. One initial conception was a sort of Flipboard-like product. (Facebook declined to comment on any of this Reader talk specifically.)

The overall goal here: Cox and Zuckerberg, the two most vocal proponents of this philosophy, want visiting the site to be a “useful” experience, delivering a well-rounded assortment of content for people across the world, in a tight, well-crafted package.

It’s quite an idyllic portrait of Facebook. But its early renditions haven’t been smooth sailing.

Take the News Feed redesign introduced in early March — the first major fruit borne from Facebook’s “Reader” initiative. While the result was drastically scaled back from the overhaul that many inside the company envisioned, it still looked very different from the old Facebook. Media, stories and photos were huge, taking up much more onscreen real estate. So, while there were fewer articles, they looked bigger and better than before.

However, sources said that in the small rollout to a single-digit percentage of users, engagement with the new design has stalled. So much so, in fact, that the majority of users won’t receive this Facebook redesign we saw unveiled this year.

Instead, sources said, it’s back to the drawing board on a better News Feed, while using the failed first launch as a data point for creating a better Version 2. When users finally do see something new, it will likely be a far less drastic change, incorporating only some of the modifications, and only those that worked better than others.

To be fair, the company is in a bit of a bind here: Roll out sweeping changes all at once and face potential user backlash or test slowly to see what does and doesn’t work and be chastised for not moving fast enough.

The difference here is that Facebook made a huge deal of its launch announcement earlier this year, and set expectations that the rest of the world would soon see the product. We haven’t heard a peep since, and we likely won’t for awhile.

A Facebook spokesman said the company was still testing the redesign changes, and wouldn’t comment further.

What the People Want

Facebook has another problem with its vision of News Feed: The type of stuff that people actually have an appetite for.

Facebook Product Chief Chris Cox talks about having a unified News Feed design across desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Adam Tow/AllThingsD Facebook Product Chief Chris Cox talks about having a unified News Feed design across desktop computers, tablets and smartphones.

What Facebook wants to surface in the News Feed more often is “high-quality” content. While News Feed manager Lars Backstrom didn’t spell out precisely what that means in Peter Kafka’s recent interview, he alluded to “1,000-word stories” on sites like AllThingsD. (This Facebook post from August may give a little more background, but it’s still tough to parse exactly what it all means.)

But what users are clicking on and sharing seems to be quite the opposite of Backstrom’s example: Viral stories and photos produced by publishers like BuzzFeed and Upworthy, or appearing on hosting sites like Imgur or 9Gag, perform exceedingly well on Facebook, garnering tons of clicks and engagement.

The result of the News Feed after all that sharing and virality? A sort of tabloidized version of Facebook, where “junk-food stories with LOLcat art” do insanely well and show up more often, as one insider put it to me, while perhaps something like a more labor-intensive magazine feature — or even a decent news story — may surface less often in the feed.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Viral content inside Facebook means more engaged and potentially satisfied users. And happy users often means a happy Facebook.

Except, perhaps, for Cox, Zuckerberg and crew, who would like to see a more diverse — and, dare I say, more refined — News Feed. Cox especially has a problem with BuzzFeed and sites similar to it, according to multiple sources. While the two companies have formed a strong partnership, Cox doesn’t want Facebook to become BuzzFeed, overrun with its typically viral content.

Instead, the team wants to emphasize the content for which Backstrom maintains there is, indeed, an appetite; Some Facebook-conducted surveys indicate different “value” placed on some types of content more than others (though again, Backstrom wouldn’t specify which).

The team has even held back some products that would likely prove quite popular on Facebook, yet would go against the design ideals that the team is wrestling with. Take looping GIF photos inside of Facebook, for instance — long a staple of BuzzFeed. While Facebook doesn’t currently support GIFs, sources said that Facebook has had that support product built and ready to ship for quite a long time. It hasn’t gone live yet, however, due to internal debate over the aesthetic impact on the News Feed.

The key word here, often used by top Facebook executives , is “useful.” What algorithms could deliver a broad mix of content that all of Facebook’s billion-plus user base not only finds compelling but informative? One that delivers the same feeling as, say, opening up a newspaper?

Keeping the Balance

There’s no quick fix for the News Feed problems. It will all likely proceed as more small tweaks and changes to the feed, with Facebook hoping that it doesn’t swing too far in one direction.

Top News Feed managers and execs; From left, Adam Mosseri, Mark Zuckerberg, Julie Zhou and Chris Cox.

Top News Feed managers and execs, including Mark Zuckerberg, Julie Zhuo and Chris Cox.

As far as curbing the prevalence of so-called inferior content [My phrasing, for lack of a better term], some technology brought in from outside the company may help. Facebook acquired Face.com last year, a company that works with facial-recognition technology. But sources said that in a broader sense Face.com is really about image recognition more than strictly faces, and Facebook has used that technology to recognize low-quality photos posted to the site. So if, say, a simple mass of black text wrapped in white-bordered edges is uploaded to Facebook, it may be automatically “downranked” and therefore less likely to surface often in others’ feeds. (The tech has a number of other helpful uses as well.)

I imagine, however, that most of the work now will be walking the tightrope of appeasing nervous publishers, dealing with the ever-fluctuating whims of users and “aligning Facebook’s own definition of value with that of their users,” as News Feed manager Backstrom put it.

As for imagining the News Feed of tomorrow, try to think of it in terms of what the company doesn’t want it to look like: “Chris and Mark absolutely do not want Facebook to be Tumblr,” as one source said.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald