Facebook Doesn't Know the Meaning of "Meaningful," and It's Destroying Facebook

In changing the identity of the News Feed, Facebook users are spending less time on Facebook.

Flickr / Mark Morgan Trinidad B

Facebook announced earlier this year that it would adjust the algorithm of its News Feed to give prominence to more interactions between real people, instead of allowing third-party news and video to fill user feeds.

Facebook, however, is still attempting to quantify what CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls “meaningful social interactions.” What’s “meaningful” has different definitions for different people. Some want their Facebook feeds to be a mix of interpersonal updates and news headlines. Others want just headlines. Others still want only interpersonal interactions. Essentially, Facebook executives haven’t quite figured out what “meaningful” means to them, either.

The waffling seems to be moving people away from Facebook faster, according to statistics released by the company showing that time-on-site was going down, as the company decreased the amount of third-party content that surfaces in News Feed. Time-on-site went down by 50 million user hours per day in the fourth quarter, because less videos showed up in the feed.

“Helping people connect is more important than maximizing the time people spend on Facebook,” Zuckerberg said on the earnings call.

The News Feed is Facebook to a lot of people, and its inability to police the influx of propaganda via Russian active measures and other methods, has seemingly led it to abandon the real news in its News Feed instead of attacking it head-on. The path of least resistance, it seems, is how Facebook fights lies masquerading as truth.

But what is “meaningful” to Facebook? That’s a tough question.

“We’re trying to figure out how to best measure and understand that,” said Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s VP for News Feed, this week at the Recode Code Media conference in California. “The key components are any interactions between two people. So it’s about people-to-people, not people-to-publisher or people-to-business or people-to-page.”

Mosseri also says that conversations between friends fall under “meaningful” interactions, versus chats between strangers or even viral content being shared. This puts Facebook in a tricky position when it comes to prioritizing content driven by humans over paid promotional posts.

“The metric is definitely evolving,” Mosseri says, signaling a vague strategy on Facebook’s part.

Meaningful Interactions vs. Time-on-Site

The world’s biggest social media site held an earnings call for its fourth quarter and full 2017 financial results this month, in which Zuckerberg admitted the company is struggling in some metrics that are crucial for a website’s health, like time spent on-site.

While Facebook’s overall daily active users saw a 14 percent increase, with 1.40 billion on average for December 2017, the slowdown in time spent on the platform overshadows this accomplishment.

“2017 was a strong year for Facebook, but it was also a hard one,” said Zuckerberg on the call. “In 2018, we’re focused on making sure Facebook isn’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being and for society. We’re doing this by encouraging meaningful connections between people rather than passive consumption of content.”

Those “meaningful connections” are what got Facebook to make changes within the past fiscal quarter, “to show fewer viral videos to make sure people’s time is well spent.”

But there was a cost to that decision for the site: Total time spent on Facebook went down by roughly 50 million hours daily, causing user decline in North America for the first time ever.

While Facebook still hasn’t confirmed how “meaningful” its interactions on its News Feed, one thing is for sure: the company has a lot of pressure to relieve after having a “tough” past year in the headlines.