Commentary

Facebook Appeals To The Byte-Stained Wretch In Us All

The face of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, says the design changes he previewed yesterday at a press event in Menlo Park, Calif., are all about giving consumers greater control over a product he’s calling “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” But Ad Age’s headline probably gets to the real reason behind the forthcoming larger graphics and specialized feeds tailored to users’ interests: “Facebook News Feed Redesign Gives Marketers What They've Pined For: Bigger Ads.”

Not that the two are incompatible, at least as far as a third constituency –- investors –- are concerned. “The changes are designed to address the company’s two most vital challenges: how to hold onto users at a time of competing, specialized social networks and how to draw more advertising dollars to please Wall Street,” Somini Sengupta writes in the New York Times.

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Facebook closed up 4% at $28.58 on Nasdaq following the announcement, leading strong gains for tech stocks, MarketWatch’s Rex Crum reports. He cites a note by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who told clients the changes "could lead to improved engagement on Facebook as well as new monetization opportunities." 

And although the usual carping is to be expected as the design rolls out late next week, there were a lot of positive comments about the new look from the professional journo class.

“A more visual, image-centric design, doing away with the useless 3-column look, letting you filter by specific types of content. It’s all stuff users should be able to appreciate,” writes Walter Frick on BostInno.

“Facebook’s starkly redesigned News Feed partly acknowledges what’s become true since 2006: we’re swimming in streams,” Matt Buchanan blogs on the New Yorker’s “News Desk,” pointing out that “user outrage’” the day after Facebook announced its “facelift” to news streams was so “blistering” that Zuckerberg responded with an early morning blog post starting off with “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”

But the news streams view of our individual universes prevailed, he points out.

Ad Age’s subhed hints at one possible hazard of the redesign: “Potential Fragmentation of Facebook Audience Could Make it Harder to Reach Fans Organically.” Users can access the new specialized feeds by clicking on a tab on the right-hand corner of their screen, Cotton Delo explains, but “if the feeds end up engrossing a wide swath of users, it could mean that the Facebook audience becomes more fragmented.” 

That might “exacerbate” an existing frustration, Delo writes, referring to an earlier piece about a Group M Next study that found that share of Facebook users seeing organic posts from a brand they “like” was down precipitously in September following a Facebook algorithm change. (On the positive side, engagement was up.)

The Wall Street Journal’s Evelyn M. Rusli reports “some analysts were skeptical that the changes will help brands get people to pay more attention to their ads or pages.”

"There could be a short-term increase in engagement for all posts," Stipple CEO Rey Flemings tells Rusli. "But it doesn't address the fundamental problem that ads will still be seen as interrupting the newsfeed."

Peter LaMotte, who leads the digital team at a D.C.-based communications firm Levick, tells Washington Post technology blogger Hayley Tsukayama that “the redesign could benefit companies that can quickly attract consumers’ attention with eye-catching advertising” but “could also hurt smaller companies that can’t sink a lot of money into complex campaigns.” 

Says Levick: “It’s no longer about being prepared to buy your way” onto a user’s news feed. You have to make engaging content.”

That, it would seem, would be the user’s onus, too. So now that we’re all the editor of our own newspapers, it might be a good time to remember Charles Foster Kane at his best. Let's hope Zuckerberg fares better than Kane in the end.

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