Facebook has faced growing criticism in the recent past about its platform becoming a key channel for spread of misinformation and propaganda by vested interests, and for also not doing enough to curb abuse and hate speech online.
Adding to its challenges, the social media network has seen rising complaints from users over its perceived attempts to place advertising income above all else when it came to business priorities.
Confronted with questions from lawmakers as well as users, the US tech giant’s co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted last month that he needs to take some action to ensure the firm’s long-term success.
Now, the issue is this: has the company really understood the scale of the problem and will it do enough to fix the problems, particularly in relation to its News Feed?
Zuckerberg announced three initiatives to improve the content on the News Feed.
First, posts from friends will be given bigger priority in users’ feeds over messages from groups and news organizations. The move is aimed helping users feel they are spending their time better as they connect with their friends and relatives, rather than waste time on tons of information.
The second initiative is to seek users’ views on trusted sources of news information through a regular user survey. Facebook will use the results from the survey to prioritize the information that will appear on the News Feed.
And the third one, which was announced just this week, is to promote news from local sources to foster a sense of community and encourage civic engagement among users.
Through these initiatives, Facebook hopes to win back the trust of users who were beginning to feel disenchanted with the platform. After all, user “stickiness” is crucial if the firm wants to generate more ad dollars.
The drive to enhance user-satisfaction is positive, but are the changes really enough? Shouldn’t the company be doing more? This is the thought running through the mind of many observers.
Despite the adjustments, the fact remains the News Feed will still be controlled by an opaque algorithm, a computer formula that serves as a tool to enhance Facebook’s commercial prospects.
Rather than provide information which the users really prefer, the algorithm will have its own priorities, with the company still in the driver’s seat when it comes to the News Feed.
With the company deciding what users will see, calls such as “stop censorship” and “return the basic function of Facebook to me” will only grow.
Many users already complain that Facebook is controlling what they can see and what they can post. The social media giant is accused of deleting posts that contain blacklisted words or discuss sensitive topics.
From the users’ perspective, Facebook enjoys too much power to limit users’ information choices.
Meanwhile, many people are also saying that Facebook is failing to meet their requirement as a pure social network, as it is now more like a giant advertising platform.
If the company doesn’t take proper steps to address the concerns, there is a real prospect that it will suffer in terms of reduced user engagement.
According to information that accompanied Facebook’s quarterly results announcement on Wednesday, users are already spending less time on the platform than before.
In the three months to December last year, collective time spent by Facebook users on the platform fell by 50 million hours a day. That translates to about two minutes a day for each user.
If the social media titan wants to prevent further slide in user engagement, it needs to return to its roots and focus on its original mission — to serve as a tool that connects people with one another.
Also, it needs to reflect as to why it is failing to be a credible platform for distribution of news. Traditional channels like newspapers and television programs at least can include different views in their coverage, but Facebook filters out content automatically if its algorithm thinks users shouldn’t receive some particular information.
The new generation of Internet users has begun to look beyond Facebook in their need for social engagement as well as information. They are using new apps or platforms that enable pure peer-to-peer sharing without irksome advertisements disturbing the browsing experience.
If Facebook fails to put more power in the hands of its users, in terms of giving the information they really want and in the desired setting, the younger generation will step up migration to other platforms that promise a better experience.
While Zuckerberg has indicated that he is aware of the problems, he needs to do more if he wants to protect as well as grow Facebook’s huge user base and shore up user engagement.
To return the firm to its roots as a network focused on enabling people to connect with their friends, perhaps Zuckerberg may even need to consider a seemingly drastic measure — putting an end to the News Feed feature.
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