rolled out a substantial redesign of its website and mobile app, as Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg seeks to address criticism of the social-media giant’s influence by nudging users toward different types of engagement and more private communication tools.
The end result is a platform with more emphasis on private groups and visual stories, and less on the News Feed where abusive content and polarization took root in recent years.
One casualty of the changes: the iconic blue Facebook banner that has appeared atop screens since the social network’s 2004 debut.
Mr. Zuckerberg said in an interview that the changes unveiled Tuesday mark the most significant alteration to Facebook’s core platform in five years and are part of a larger effort to offer less-public ways of communicating. “Groups are at the heart of the app, not just friends,” he said.
On Tuesday, at Facebook’s annual F8 conference for developers, he acknowledged skepticism of his ability to tackle the privacy issues that have dogged the company for years.
Facebook’s newly redesigned desktop News Feed.
“I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “I’m sure we’ll keep on unearthing old issues for a while, so it may not feel like we’re making progress at first.”
Facebook’s redesigned mobile app goes live Tuesday, while users will see the updated website in a few weeks.
Mr. Zuckerberg said the changes are part of the broad rethinking of Facebook’s product design, priorities and even values that he has touted over the last two months. In early March, he said the company would focus on more private communications, embracing encrypted and ephemeral messaging across its products and guiding its Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram platforms toward similar sets of features.
Do you think Facebook’s redesign will change how people use the platform? If so, do you think the change will be positive? Join the conversation below.
Facebook is cultivating groups as it shifts toward relying more on users to help police content and prevent harassment. Group administrators, not Facebook, are already front-line moderators of behavior within their often closed forums. The company is also adding new resources, including a tool that flags violations of Facebook standards to groups’ moderators, said Fidji Simo, the recently appointed head of the Facebook App.
Expanding the role of users in policing behavior on Facebook could relieve some pressure on the company to do so—after it has spent billions of dollars in recent years to hire contract moderators and build artificial-intelligence systems to screen for abusive content.
One risk of encouraging like-minded users to connect and discuss shared passions in groups is the potential for forums that share misinformation to blossom further. Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook would discourage users from gravitating toward such groups by making them less prominent. “If people really seek it out on their own, fine,” he said of existing Facebook groups that promote conspiracy theories. “But part of our responsibility is to make sure we don’t recommend groups that share misinformation.”
There may be more to work out. A search for “cancer” in the Groups section shows one of the top recommendations is a “Cancer Cures & Natural Healing Research” group, which lists 96,000 members and claims pharmaceutical companies are suppressing natural cancer treatments to maintain their profits.
“The US government poisons babies, practically from birth,” an administrator of the group wrote in a Monday post, falsely alleging links between fluoride and autism in children, saying the government’s support of fluoridated water “goes light years beyond terrorism” and “will cause your baby’s brain to turn into mush.”
Informed of the group’s prominence in search results, a Facebook spokesman said the company would strive to hold group administrators to higher account, seeking to “reduce the reach of groups that repeatedly share information that’s found to be false by third-party fact-checkers.”
While Mr. Zuckerberg has cited the benefits of group communication regularly in recent years, he said the company “put a little bit of a pause” on their growth last year as it reassigned employees from those teams to work on user safety. Those include systems to detect “borderline content,” or posts falling just shy of Facebook’s standards for takedown, so the company doesn’t promote those posts or otherwise incentivize that behavior.
“We hoped to launch six months ago,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in the interview, “but we prioritized a lot of these safety issues.”
The app’s redesign around Groups is just a small piece of the technical revamp of Facebook’s products that Mr. Zuckerberg says will accompany its switch to a more integrated set of services built around privacy. Users of Messenger will soon be able to communicate with people on Instagram and WhatsApp by both text and voice, fulfilling one of Mr. Zuckerberg’s early goals for integrating the features Facebook’s various platforms. Instagram no longer will require users to post a photo for a status update, a feature already well-established on the main Facebook app.
While design changes can be risky for social-media companies with devoted audiences, investors weren’t bothered by the changes announced Tuesday. Facebook shares dropped 1%.
Not everything Facebook is launching at F8 involves weighty questions about the platform’s role in shaping discourse.
The company said it is expanding its dating app to a total of 19 countries, along with a feature called “Secret Crush,” in which users can list nine friends or friends of friends who are of romantic interest, then receive a notification from Facebook if their lists match.
Those features—along with a product meant to connect people seeking platonic relationships—would be rolled out in the U.S. before the end of the year, Ms. Simo said.
“The U.S. is sort of in the last wave of countries,” she said, citing the strong saturation of dating apps in the country already. “We wanted to make sure we have a strong value proposition.”