Facebook Changing Algorithm to Take on TikTok: Leaked Memo Reveals

Executives were closely following TikTok’s moves and had grown worried that they weren’t accomplishing enough to compete. So in conversations with CEO Mark Zuckerberg before this year, they resolved that Facebook required to rethink the Feed completely.

In an internal memo from late April, the Meta executive in charge of Facebook, Tom Alison, spelled out the strategy: rather than prioritize posts from accounts people follow, Facebook’s main Feed will, such as TikTok, start heavily suggesting posts regardless of where they come from.

And years later, Messenger and Facebook split up as separate apps, and the two will get back together, imitating TikTok’s messaging functionality.

Combined with an increasing focus on Reels, the planned changes show how forcibly Meta is responding to the promotion of TikTok, which has fast become a legitimate challenger to its dominance in social media. While Instagram has already morphed to examine more like TikTok, focusing on Reels, executives expect that a parallel treatment to Facebook will invert the app’s stagnant development and potentially lure back young people.

The moment is similar to when Facebook replicated Snapchat as it increased, but the stakes are arguably higher this time. Investors doubt Meta’s ability to steer challenges to its ads company. And with its stock price already struck, the firm needs to show that it can grow if Zuckerberg wants to keep financing his metaverse vision.

TikTok making money

In a statement underneath his April memo I witnessed, Alison placed it bluntly to employees: “The risk for us is that we ignore this as being not valuable to individuals as a state of social communication and connection, and we forget to evolve.”

The company was sluggish to see the competitive threat of TikTok, even as it originally grew by blanketing Facebook and Instagram with ads. But now, Meta notices the video app as increasingly encroaching on its house turf of social networking, with Alison pointing to the increasing reputation of private messaging in TikTok and the introduction of a trustworthy tab for viewing videos from buddies.

Here’s how the future Facebook app will perform: the main tab will become a mix of Stories and Reels at the top, tracked by posts its discovery engine suggests from both Facebook and Instagram. In addition, it’ll be a more visual, video-heavy experience with clearer prompts to direct message friends a post. Finally, to make messaging even more prominent, Facebook is working on positioning a user’s Messenger inbox at the top right of the app, unfastening the infamous decision to split the two apps eight years ago.

Instagram is already well ahead of Facebook’s push to show more Reels from accounts you don’t follow, or the company dubs “unconnected” origins. Right now, only about 11 percent of the content in Facebook’s main Feed is detached, the company informs me, and to date, those posts have mainly surfaced through reshares people post to their network, not the company’s AI.

Founded on my conversations with Alison and his memo, it’s obvious Meta realizes that to compete with TikTok, it must imitate the magical experience of TikTok’s main “For You” page. The News Feed, which lowered 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 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 exciting videos, TikTok also leveled the playing field for creators, providing them a way to go viral overnight without a considerable following.

The proof is in the numbers: TikTok, owned by the private Chinese tech partnership ByteDance, has been downloaded a whopping 3.6 billion times, according to the portable app research firm Sensor Tower. Per its estimations, 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 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 was not how people wanted to talk with each other, no matter how Facebook tweaked it. “Stories is how 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 the primary way Facebook’s original use case friends and family staying in touch with each other lives on.

Aside from adding more messaging features, Alison is clear that he wants Facebook to be a “cleaner and easier to use experience.” He gives a nervous laugh when I ask if the Facebook app has gotten bloated over the years with all its tabs and notifications. “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. So how does being a place for random, AI-delivered videos square with Facebook’s original mission of baby photos and vacation updates?

Whether or not this new push will make Facebook more of a passive experience remains to be seen. Groups are a big part of Facebook, and Alison says that isn’t changing, though Reels will 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 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 primary purpose of connecting friends and family. But people are already using the social network differently than they used to. For example, on the last Meta earnings call, Zuckerberg said that half the time people spend on Facebook is spent watching videos. 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 shape discourse, the company starting to learn more about 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. The discovery engine push will undoubtedly put more pressure on Meta’s decisions to amplify specific posts over others.

Employees I’ve spoken with say that the company’s most considerable trust and safety risks already come from the recommendations its systems make in areas like Instagram Explore and Facebook Watch. “For a while, we leaned into it because it got people to follow more stuff that was new to them, and that 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 many 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 think it is a big responsibility,” Alison says of the new, recommendations-heavy approach. As a 12-year company veteran who previously led News Feed engineering, he knows the power of algorithms better than most. Nevertheless, 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. For example, 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. Meta has shown that its regulations aren’t always enforced consistently, and violating content can 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.