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Facebook employees were recently told to make the app's feed more similar to TikTok.

It wasn't going to be enough for the company's short-form video feature to be brought into Facebook. Executives were concerned that they weren't doing enough to compete with TikTok. They decided that Facebook needed to change the feed completely.

Tom Alison, the Meta executive in charge of Facebook, spelled out the plan in an internal memo in late April. After Messenger and Facebook split up, they will be brought back together.

The changes show how forcibly Meta is responding to the rise of TikTok, which has become a legitimate challenger to its dominance in social media. Executives hope that a similar treatment to Facebook will reverse the app's stagnant growth and possibly lure back young people.

This time, the stakes are higher than they were when Facebook copiedSnapchat. Meta's ability to navigate its ads business is being doubted by investors. With its stock price already battered, the company needs to show that it can grow.

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.

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 the CEO.

“I think the thing we probably didn’t fully embrace or see is how social this format could be”

Alison acknowledges that the company was slow to see the competitive threat of TikTok, even as it initially grew. Alison pointed to the increasing prominence of private messaging in TikTok and the introduction of a dedicated tab for viewing videos from friends as signs that the video app is encroaching on its home turf.

We probably didn't fully embrace how social this format could be.

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 andInstagram. Direct message friends a post will be a more visual, video heavy experience. In order to make messaging more prominent, Facebook is working on placing a user's Messenger inbox at the top right of the app.

The company is pushing to show more reels from accounts you don't follow, and what they call "un connected" sources. The company tells me that about 11 percent of the content in the main feed is not connected to anything else.

To compete with TikTok, Meta needs to recreate the magic of the main page of TikTok. The News Feed pioneered a social feed that learns from explicit signals you give it, such as friending someone or following a page TikTok injected a never-ending fire hose of short videos into peoples' screens by guessing what they liked based on their viewing habits. TikTok leveled the playing field for creators by removing the need to follow accounts before seeing their videos.

According to Sensor Tower, TikTok has been downloaded 3.6 billion times. Last year, TikTok downloads were 20 percent higher than Facebook and 21 percent higher thanInstagram. In the first three months of this year, the average time spent on TikTok was 78 percent more than on Facebook.

Facebook has nearly three billion users and prints billions of dollars a quarter. There are indications that the best days are behind it. At the end of last year, the social network lost users for the first time in its history. Employees at Facebook are unsure about how to correct the aging of their user base, according to leaked internal documents.

The last major change to the Facebook feed experience was in the year 2018? There were many brands trying to gamify Facebook's algorithm. The change was made to return Facebook to its roots.

Tom Alison took over as head of the Facebook app last July.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge (Photo provided by Meta)

The News Feed was not the way people wanted to communicate with each other. Alison said that stories is the way that more people are sharing with their friends. The main way friends and family can stay in touch with each other is through a combination of Stories and private messaging.

People want to connect over content. Facebook is trying to bring you the best content that is going to really cater to your interests, but also making it easy to share that and discuss and connect with other people in your network over that. Alison wants his product teams to encourage users to message each other about the Reels they see in Facebook rather than letting posts lead to conversations in other apps.

Alison wants Facebook to be a cleaner and easier to use website. He gave a nervous laugh when I asked if the app had gotten bloated with all the notifications. The Facebook app has a lot to offer.

Some employees are concerned that the company is being too aggressive in copying TikTok since he published his internal manifesto on the future of Facebook. How does being a place for random, artificial intelligence-delivered videos fit with the original mission of Facebook?

One Facebook employee wrote in an internal response that they lost focus on the social graph and human choice in favor of chasing short-term interests. The product manager was worried that TikTok wasjuices time spent metrics for a little bit but over time users realized it was not high-quality time spent.

“We’re not really going to put too many limitations on when and where we show recommended content in Feed”

Alison insists that the discovery engine idea isn't a radical pivot for Facebook that it sounds like. He says that they will always prioritize what you want to share with your friends. We will not put too many limitations on when and where we show recommended content in Feed, which is something we have done in the past.

It's not clear whether this new push will make Facebook more of a passive experience or not. A big part of Facebook is groups, and Alison says that will not change. His teams are working on a redesign that moves Groups, or what employees are internally now called Communities, to a panel that is accessible to the left of the Feed.

Some current and former employees feel that Facebook is moving away from its main purpose of connecting friends and family. People are using the network in a different way. Half the time people spend on Facebook is spent watching video, according to the CEO. Alison writes that people often open our app without an explicit intention but that investing in our discovery engine will enhance people's ability to connect.

The company is starting to lean even more on the use of artificial intelligence. Alison's teams are working on a project called "Mr. T" which will let users access a chronological version of their connected Feed. The discovery engine push will put more pressure on the decisions Meta makes.

The company's biggest trust and safety risks come from the recommendations its systems make, according to employees I've spoken with. "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." The Russian IRA and other bad actors were made worse by it.

As scrutiny on misuses of the platform grew, employees built systems to identify and demote sensitive posts on topics like politics and vaccines. Before the attempted January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol, Facebook stopped recommending political groups around the world.

Alison thinks it's a big responsibility to use a recommendations-heavy approach. He knows a lot more about the power of algorithms than most people. I have been told by company executives that the Feed is just a reflection of what they want to see.

He says that Meta's rules are more strict than what people can see from their friends. Meta's rules don't allow it to recommend suicide or eating disorder content to strangers, even if a friend posts it on the site. Meta shows that its rules aren't always enforced consistently and that violating content can often slip through the cracks.

According to Eli Pariser, the author of a 2012 book called The Filter Bubble, the News Feed is an indictment of what has become of social media. The News Feed failed to be a safe place to share your life. He says that people have figured that out and moved those conversations to places they are more comfortable in.

One of Facebook's core competencies has been copying upstarts. It worked with several platforms. Will the playbook work again? It is a race to see if Facebook can become like TikTok.

Alison wrote a memo about the future of Facebook.