Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to alter Facebook’s news feed to prioritise personal posts over professionally produced news and video was spurred by a potential exodus of users, according to research.
Time spent by average members fell by 7% last August compared with the same period in 2016, and by a further 4.7% in September, according to a review of Nielsen traffic data.
The analysis, by Pivotal Research, suggested that Facebook users had become tired of being bombarded with news stories and adverts.
The figures may also indicate the first signs of fallout among users after a series of controversies in the past year, from fake news to growing worries of potential adverse psychological effects the platform may have, especially on the young.
On Wednesday, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter will face another grilling in the Senate over extremist content on their sites. The hearing is titled “Terrorism and Social Media: #IsBigTechDoingEnough?”
In Zuckerberg’s public post announcing what he called a “major change”, the billionaire made no mention of the hearing or any other specific issues buffeting the company. His aim, he said, was simply to ensure that time on Facebook was “time well spent”.
The first step in the effort is to re-engineer how the news feed, the core feature of the platform, filters content deemed to be of interest to individual users. The new approach will feature less content from “businesses, brands, and media” and more from ”friends, family and groups”.
Publishers, from newspapers to video producers, reacted with dismay because the move will make it harder for their content to be seen. Facebook has changed strategy several times before, from promoting clicks and “likes” to video and then live feeds.
Publishers have invested heavily to meet those demands because of Facebook’s immense power and reach, only to be left in the lurch when its priorities change. For some, such as local news outlets that often rely on Facebook for a significant chunk of their traffic, this latest change could be brutal.
Zuckerberg wrote: “I want to be clear: by making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down.” Investors dumped Facebook stock after the warning. The shares tumbled 4% to $179.37.
Even after the sell-off, Facebook is worth $520bn (£378bn). According to Pivotal Research, the overhaul of the news feed could hit growth in the short term, though it should bolster long-term prospects.