For the past month, Facebook has been open about how it is messing with its secret formula to create a better environment for people—one that is less harmful to people's psyches.
On Wednesday, Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg shed new light on how changes to its News Feed are impacting the time people spend with the social network, and what they think that means for its future.
Facebook says it will show fewer posts from untrustworthy news sources and low-quality viral videos, emphasizing instead posts from family and friends to encourage more "meaningful" interactions. We "can improve people's lives by doing that," Zuckerberg said during a call with Wall Street analysts after releasing quarterly results on Wednesday. "So we're absolutely going to go do that."
For the first time since announcing News Feed changes, Facebook elaborated on what those changes will mean.
Less time spent on Facebook
One of the most stunning impacts so far was that people already spend less time on Facebook. Zuckerberg said that people are devoting 50 million fewer hours a day to the social network, which comes out to two minutes per person on average. Facebook has 1.4 billion daily users.
For the first time since going public in 2012, the number of daily active users actually declined in the U.S. and Canada. David Wehner, Facebook's chief financial officer, says he doesn't expect that to be a continuing trend, but that the daily user numbers could fluctuate in North America, because of the high existing penetration rate in the region.
There are 183 million daily users in the U.S. and Canada, down 700,000 from the prior quarter.
Facebook could be suffering from fatigue among users, who have been put off by the daily political conversations, according to at least one advertiser who spoke on condition of anonymity. "People are exhausted by the nonstop political dialog, the arguments," the advertising executive says. "That is a lot of it."
Facebook has said that it's making changes to clean up the news that's posted to the social network. It will show fewer posts from publishers, and the publishers it does show will be ranked according to how trustworthy they are perceived to be by users.
Changes to the News Feed algorithm already had an impact in the fourth quarter, ending in December. Zuckerberg said most of that was because Facebook had already downgraded "viral videos." So Facebook is showing fewer videos it considers low quality, the kind that many publishers had thought were their ticket to easy views on the social network.
What the algorithm wants
Zuckerberg also gave insights into how the algorithm will work. "There's this myth that we design News Feed in order to just optimize for time spent or likes or comments or some signals like that," Zuckerberg said.
But Facebook surveys thousands of people and simply asks them what content resonated with them. "People will tell us what is creating the most meaningful interactions in their lives," Zuckerberg said. That could include content that they shared to friends in Messenger or talked about in the real world, Zuckerberg said.
What does to the business
The changes could actually be good for business, according to Facebook. Fewer viral videos sucking up attention didn't obviously punish ad revenue in the fourth quarter, when it hit $13 billion, up nearly 50 percent year over year.
Less time spent on a low-quality video means more time spent scrolling through posts, engaging with them and seeing an ad—or at least, that's the theory.
"We have more monetization opportunities," Sandberg said. At the same time, however, she asserted that the company is "not doing this to be positive or negative on revenue."
Advertisers will likely double down on buying ads, too, since it will be more difficult to ensure a post gets seen outside of paying for it. That's the message Facebook is delivering to brands, right now, according to advertisers.
"The best strategy is to keep buying ads," says Kyle Bunch, managing director of R/GA's social practice. "Facebook is a ruthlessly efficient advertising machine, so it would be tough for any advertiser to pull back."