By Alex Heath / @alexeheath
Facebook employees were recently given a new directive with sweeping implications: make the app’s feed more like TikTok.
Simply bringing Reels, the company’s short-form video feature, from Instagram into Facebook wasn’t going to cut it. Executives were closely tracking TikTok’s moves and had grown worried that they weren’t doing enough to compete. In conversations with CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year, they decided that Facebook needed to rethink the feed entirely.
In an internal memo from late April obtained by The Verge, the Meta executive in charge of Facebook, Tom Alison, spelled out the plan: rather than prioritize posts from accounts people follow, Facebook’s main feed will, like TikTok, start heavily recommending posts regardless of where they come from. And years after Messenger and Facebook split up as separate apps, the two will be brought back together, mimicking TikTok’s messaging functionality.
Combined with an increasing emphasis on Reels, the planned changes show how forcibly Meta is responding to the rise of TikTok, which has quickly become a legitimate challenger to its dominance in social media. While Instagram has already morphed to look more like TikTok with its focus on Reels, executives hope that a similar treatment to Facebook will reverse the app’s stagnant growth and potentially lure back young people.
The moment is similar to when Facebook copied Snapchat as it was growing quickly, but this time, the stakes are arguably higher. Investors are doubting Meta’s ability to navigate challenges to its ads business. And with its stock price already battered, the company needs to show that it can grow if Zuckerberg wants to keep funding his metaverse vision.
Alison put it bluntly to employees in a comment underneath his April memo I saw: “The risk for us is that we dismiss this as being not valuable to people as a form of social communication and connection and we fail to evolve.”
After I asked Meta for comment on his memo, the company set me up with Alison for his first interview since taking the helm of the world’s largest social network last year. He says the new goal for Facebook is to build the “discovery engine,” a phrase also mentioned as a top priority by CEO Mark Zuckerberg during Meta’s most recent earnings call with investors.
“I think the thing we probably didn’t fully embrace or see is how social this format could be”
During our two recent conversations, Alison acknowledges that the company was slow to see the competitive threat of TikTok, even as it initially grew by blanketing Facebook and Instagram with ads. But now, Meta sees the video app as increasingly encroaching on its home turf of social networking, with Alison pointing to the increasing prominence of private messaging in TikTok and the introduction of a dedicated tab for viewing videos from friends.
“I think the thing we probably didn’t fully embrace or see is how social this format could be,” he says.
Here’s how the future Facebook app will work in practice: the main tab will become a mix of Stories and Reels at the top, followed by posts its discovery engine recommends from across both Facebook and Instagram. It’ll be a more visual, video-heavy experience with clearer prompts to direct message friends a post. To make messaging even more prominent, Facebook is working on placing a user’s Messenger inbox at the top right of the app, undoing the infamous decision to separate the two apps eight years ago.
Instagram is already well ahead of Facebook in its push to show more Reels from accounts you don’t follow, or what the company calls “unconnected” sources. Right now, only about 11 percent of content in Facebook’s main feed is unconnected, the company tells me, and to date, those posts have mostly surfaced through reshares people post to their network, not the company’s AI.
Based on my conversations with Alison and his memo, it’s clear Meta realizes that to really compete with TikTok, it has to replicate the magical experience of TikTok’s main “For You” page. The News Feed, which dropped the “News” from its name earlier this year, pioneered a social feed that learns from explicit cues you give it, such as friending someone or following a page. TikTok went a step further by guessing what you like based on your passive viewing habits, injecting a never-ending fire hose of short videos into peoples’ screens. By removing the need to follow accounts before you see interesting videos, TikTok also leveled the playing field for creators, giving them a way to go viral overnight without a large following.
The proof is in the numbers: TikTok, which is owned by the private Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance, has been downloaded a whopping 3.6 billion times, according to the mobile app research firm Sensor Tower. Per its estimates, last year, TikTok’s downloads were 20 percent higher than Facebook’s and 21 percent higher than Instagram’s. And during the first three months of this year, iPhone users, on average, spent 78 percent more time on TikTok than on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Facebook still prints billions of dollars a quarter and boasts 2.94 billion monthly users. But there are signs that its best days are in the rearview. The social network lost users for the first time ever at the end of last year (Meta doesn’t disclose regular user numbers for Instagram). Leaked internal documents also show that Facebook’s user base is steadily aging, with employees uncertain about how to course-correct the trend.
The last major overhaul of the Facebook feed experience was in 2018 when Zuckerberg said the social network would prioritize “meaningful social interactions” between friends and family. In its quest for engagement, Facebook had grown crowded with brands trying to gamify its algorithm. According to Zuckerberg, the change was about returning Facebook to its roots.
Ultimately, the News Feed ended up not being how people wanted to talk with each other, no matter how Facebook tweaked it. “Stories is really the way that more people are sharing with their friends,” says Alison, referencing the ephemeral format that both Facebook and Instagram famously cribbed from Snapchat. He sees a combination of Stories and private messaging tied to Reels as being the main way Facebook’s original use case — friends and family staying in touch with each other — lives on.
“What we’re really finding is that people want to connect over content,” he says. “And so a lot of where we’re going with Facebook is trying to bring you the best content that’s going to really cater to your interests, but then making it super easy to share that and discuss and connect with other people in your network over that.” Alison has tasked his product teams with nudging users to message each other about the Reels they see inside Facebook rather than letting posts lead to conversations in other apps.
Aside from adding in more messaging features, Alison is clear that he wants Facebook to be a “cleaner and easier to use experience.” When I ask if the Facebook app has gotten bloated over the years with all its tabs and notifications, he gives a nervous laugh. “I’ll say that the Facebook app has a lot going on.”
Since he published his internal manifesto on the future of Facebook, some employees have voiced concern that the company is being too aggressive in copying TikTok. How does being a place for random, AI-delivered videos square with Facebook’s original mission of baby photos and vacation updates?
“I think there’s a real risk in this approach that we lose focus on our core differentiation (the social graph and human choice) in favor of chasing short-term interests and trends,” one Facebook employee wrote in an internal response to Alison’s memo that I saw. In another comment, a product manager worried that becoming like TikTok “juices time spent metrics for a little bit but over time users realize it’s not high-quality time spent,” potentially “hurting long-term growth.”
“We’re not really going to put too many limitations on when and where we show recommended content in Feed”
In both his written rebuttals to employees I saw and in our conversations, Alison insists that the discovery engine idea is not the radical pivot for Facebook that it sounds like. “We are always going to prioritize things that you want to share with your friends,” he says. “I think the main thing that’s going to change is we’re not really going to put too many limitations on when and where we show recommended content in Feed, which frankly we have in the past.”
Whether this new push will ultimately make Facebook more of a passive experience or not remains to be seen. Groups are a big part of Facebook, and Alison says that isn’t changing, though Reels will of course be shown there, too. His teams are working on a redesign that moves Groups, or what employees are internally now calling Communities, to a panel that’s accessible to the left of the Feed, similar to how Discord shows your list of joined servers.
To some current and former employees, this new direction feels like Facebook is moving away from its main purpose of connecting friends and family. But people are already using the social network differently than they used to. Zuckerberg said on the last Meta earnings call that half the time people spend on Facebook is watching video. In his memo, Alison writes that people “often open our app without an explicit intention” but that “if executed well, investing in our discovery engine will enhance people’s ability to connect.”
Given the heightened scrutiny on how Facebook’s algorithms already shape discourse, the company starting to lean even more on AI feels bold. Inside Facebook, Alison’s teams are working on a project codenamed “Mr. T,” which lets users access a chronological version of their connected Feed sorted by groups, pages, and friends they follow. Even still, the discovery engine push will undoubtedly put more pressure on the decisions Meta makes to amplify certain posts over others.
Employees I’ve spoken with in recent weeks say that the company’s biggest trust and safety risks already come from the recommendations its systems make in areas like Instagram Explore and Facebook Watch. “For a while, we really leaned into it because it got people to follow more stuff that was new to them, and that really boosted sessions and time spent,” one current employee who requested anonymity to speak without permission tells me. “But it also amplified the Russian IRA and other bad actors and increased the velocity of misinformation spread.”
Facebook ended up curtailing a lot of its recommendations after 2016 as scrutiny on misuses of the platform grew, with employees building systems to identify and demote sensitive posts on topics like politics and vaccines. After “Stop the Steal” groups spread on its platform ahead of the attempted January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol, Facebook said early last year that it would stop recommending political groups globally for good.
“I do think it is a big responsibility,” Alison says of the new, recommendations-heavy approach. As a 12-year company veteran who previously led engineering for the News Feed, he knows about the power of algorithms better than most. He maintains a refrain I’ve heard for years from company executives: that the Feed is merely a reflection of what we want to see.
He says that Meta has stricter rules for what its AI recommends than what it allows people to see from their friends. A friend could post something discussing suicide or an eating disorder and have it seen by someone they are connected with, but Meta’s rules are that its AI shouldn’t recommend that content to strangers. Even still, Meta has shown that its rules aren’t always enforced consistently, and that violating content can often slip through the cracks.
Ultimately, Facebook’s shift to be more like TikTok is an indictment of what the News Feed has become, according to Eli Pariser, the author of a 2012 book called The Filter Bubble who is now working on an initiative to build nonprofit social media. He says that the News Feed failed to be a lasting, safe place for people to share their lives. “People have figured that out, and they’ve moved those conversations to places they’re more comfortable in,” such as private messaging, he argues.
Throughout its history, one of Facebook’s core competencies has been recognizing upstarts and ruthlessly copying their core features. It worked with Snapchat and Stories. Now it’s a question of whether the playbook will work again. For Alison, it’s essentially a race to see if Facebook can become like TikTok before TikTok becomes more like Facebook.
You can read Alison’s internal memo about the future of Facebook below:
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Facebook plans ‘discovery engine’ feed change to compete with … – The Verge
By Alex Heath / @alexeheath