Journalists have long torn their hair out and stamped their feet as Facebook — which has a symbiotic relationship with news organizations — declined to spell out the intricacies of its influential News Feed.
Rather than pull back the curtain on its algorithm entirely, which many tech companies are loath to do, Facebook instead advised news organizations which types of stories are destined to perform well.
To a degree, this is to be expected. Facebook's News Feed must be partially shrouded to resist exploitation and be useful to the company's users. It's a privately owned company and permitted to do whatever it pleases within the limits of the law. And Facebook routinely discloses hints, which it deems "News Feed FYI(s)," on its corporate website to nudge news organizations in the right direction.
But the frustration with Facebook's status as a coy but incredibly influential tastemaker persists. In recent months, the social network faced pushback after a former employees told Gizmodo that political bias was working its way into the stories selected for the company's "Trending Topics" section.
Although Trending Topics is an entirely different product from News Feed, the criticism was similar: The company has incredible power over the news we read, and the decisions that govern those selections — made by people or machines — aren't always clear.
They became a little clearer today, however, when Facebook published a document called "News Feed Values," which articulates a series of principles that together constitute the type of experience Facebook wants to cultivate:
- Friends come first: "Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to — starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook."
- New information is key: "People expect the stories in their feed to be meaningful to them — and we have learned over time that people value stories that they consider informative."
- Don't forget to entertain: "For some people, that’s following a celebrity or athlete; for others it’s watching Live videos and sharing funny photos with their friends."
- Diverse opinions are prized: "We don’t favor specific kinds of sources — or ideas. Our aim is to deliver the types of stories we’ve gotten feedback that an individual person most wants to see. We do this not only because we believe it’s the right thing but also because it’s good for our business."
- Authenticity is important: "We work hard to understand what type of stories and posts people consider genuine — so we can show more of them in News Feed. And we work to understand what kinds of stories people find misleading, sensational and spammy, to make sure people see those less."
Given Facebook's status as a gatekeeper for its audience of billions around the world, news organizations would do well to heed these principles. But in many ways, they pioneered them. The best local news organizations create stories that are shared by their communities. Timeliness is the heart of news. Entertainment and authenticity are often prized by news organizations and fairness has long required reporters to seek out diverse opinions.
Jay Rosen, an influential media critic and a professor at NYU, called Facebook's news values post "a start" on his personal website, PressThink. His concise summary of its announcement: "Your social graph comes first, not the public world."
"Informing you is a higher priority than entertaining you. But we think “information” comes in many forms, not just serious news. A good recipe for beer can chicken is information to the person who is looking for it. We don’t exclude points of view we don’t like, or favor the sources we do like. We let the invisible hand of user choice make those decisions."
Part and parcel of today's announcement is Facebook's acknowledgement that prioritizing friends will necessarily prompt a decline in referral traffic the social network drives to publishers. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Facebook product manager Adam Mosseri said the change would cause a "small...but a noticeable" drop.
But more important than the latest tweak to an ever-shifting algorithm is a back-of-the-napkin roadmap for news organizations sketched out by Facebook today. We finally know a little more about what the social network wants from us — and they're many of the same things we expect from ourselves.