Facebook has transformed itself from a small-circle communications tool for Harvard students into a global social network. Now the company wants to shift its focus and return to becoming a closed peer-to-peer communications platform for friends and relatives amid challenges to the privacy and well-being of its users in the virtual world.
To signal the change, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier this week that the company will launch a new design for both its mobile app and website to emphasize interactions within private Facebook Groups.
In its new home page, Facebook makes Groups a bigger and major part of the Facebook user experience. Users will see a personalized feed of activity across all the groups they have joined in their home page. News Feed, which users treat as a key source of news and check multiple times each day, is now demoted to a lower part of their phone or computer screen.
The rationale behind the change, according to Zuckerberg, is to redefine Facebook’s service, which is to provide not just a “digital town square” but also “digital living rooms”, which means a more private channel of communications among friends and communities.
Facebook is also building Messenger and WhatsApp into platforms for all kinds of private interactions with end-to-end encryption to protect the privacy of the users. This jibes well with Zuckerberg’s idea of a unified platform that will interconnect Facebook’s family of apps with just a single user account.
In the newly designed Facebook page, the home page will still be the user’s News Feed, but there is no more button to select the News Feed feature. The new page is simplified with seven buttons to access the home page, user’s profile, notifications, messenger, Groups, shopping and video service.
The Groups feature has been redesigned to make it easier for users to join groups based on their interests. In addition, users will also receive notifications from the groups they have joined to interact with other members.
The changes appear to be a step backward from what social media should look like. Turning Groups into the core of the social network suggests that Facebook is transforming itself into a discussion forum.
Members of such forums do not know each other in the real world but they interact through the groups they have joined. These groups can have tens of thousands of members.
While Facebook is obviously trying to solve the problems spawned by its News Feed service, Groups could lead to other challenges.
While News Feed is based on their friends, reading habits, interests and, of course, Facebook’s algorithms, the information fed to the Groups are not based on the company’s algorithms. Instead, it could be mainly driven by group members and the “admin” of the group.
That could present a loophole that could be exploited by individuals and organizations intent on distributing wrong, fake or discriminatory information.
Facebook says Groups is a more private way of communicating with others. But does it have a mechanism to prevent “dangerous” information from being distributed across these Groups?
A group for stock market players, for example, could be exploited by manipulators to spread false or misleading information that could affect the price of a stock to advance ulterior motives.
They can open as many groups as they can to manipulate the market and reap huge profits. On the other hand, gullible investors could believe such information and find themselves trapped after the market makers have sold their holdings.
Is it possible for Facebook to monitor such pernicious activities in these groups to prevent retail investors from suffering losses?
Facebook has fact checkers and other individuals and groups to monitor the information being spread in News Feed. In the case of Groups, the responsibility is largely left to the administrators.
Facebook says there are tens of millions of active groups on the social network and such groups would become the most meaningful part of how users use Facebook. Today, more than 400 million people on Facebook belong to such groups, and this is probably why Facebook is introducing these new tools – to make it for users to discover and engage with groups of people who share the same interests.
Facebook is reeling from accusations that its News Feed has become a leading platform for the spread of fake news, hate messages and other harmful information. Such information, in fact, is said to have affected the results of political elections.
Now Facebook is coming up with a redesigned platform that could bring about the same issues. It is hard to imagine how it can help at all in winning back the public trust.
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