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Four questions Facebook won't answer

One benefit of writing a newsletter every day is that you get to look at the same set of facts so lon
January 16 · Issue #64 · View online
The Interface
One benefit of writing a newsletter every day is that you get to look at the same set of facts so long that they cease to make any sense to you whatsoever. That’s basically where I am with the Facebook News Feed changes, which has dominated our discussion here over the past week and which increasingly baffle me. 
I had hoped to clarify some things with Facebook, but the company declined to make anyone available for an interview. So, in the spirit of inquiry and for the Facebook employees who subscribe, here are four sets of questions that I hope the company will answer eventaully.
1. On one hand, Facebook has suggested that the News Feed will feel very different over the coming year. On the other hand, News Feed chief Adam Mosseri has said that links that spur conversations might see even more engagement than they did before. One way of looking at that might be to say that news isn’t disappearing from the News Feed, but rather, the kinds of news you see in the News Feed might change. And, on the whole, the average person might see just as much news as they did before. Or more, even! Is this a wild misreading of the facts? Is it too soon to tell? Or am I right?
2. At the same time, Facebook is also testing a news-free News Feed in six countries, and a local-news-heavy News Feed in six American cities. Is there any relation between the changes announced last week and these efforts? Is one possibility that they all converge?
3. Something else I see people wrestle with is the fact that news is often very engaging — that sensational news stories often drive lots of clicks and comments and shares. (The 50 most popular fake stories of 2017 were shared 23.5 million times on Facebook.) If the new News Feed is taking those factors into account even more, resulting in broader reach, then what’s to say the feed will feel any different at all? Won’t it just reward posts that gin up lots of emotion?
4. Ben Thompson, who published an interview with Mosseri today, asked him to square this new and somewhat negative description of video as “passive” entertainment with the company’s previous statements about how the News Feed will eventually be mostly video. This was Mosseri’s response: 
The amount of time people spent watching video on Facebook grew much faster than the overall time people spent on Facebook, which I think is just a strong signal of nascent demand, really, in the market.
And so we just see it as a paradigm shift, we want to make sure that we do well, that we manage to help publishers tell their stories effectively with video, that we manage to help people express themselves effectively with video. So it’s not that we don’t want — it’s not that we don’t care, to the contrary we very much do care, but I do think the trend is much bigger than Facebook.
I don’t see an answer in there. It’s possible Facebook wants to encourage a different kind of video, one that generates lots more comments. In which case the publisher battle for attention is not, as so many hot-take artists have fervently wished this week, a thing of the past. In fact, the opposite would be true: it would incentivize publishers to develop new formats that would take better advantage of the algorithmic change so as to better profit from it.
Or it’s possible that Facebook plans to shift consumption of video to the Watch tab, where it is less concerned if people watch “passively.” (Passively watched video has turned out to be a pretty good business at, say, Netflix!)
All of these questions will be answered in time. But I do regret that, for as much time as Facebook spent trying to explain itself over the past week, some very basic questions about the company’s intent still feel so opaque.

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And finally ...
Awl Ends
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Further questions for Adam Mosseri? 
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