Mark Zuckerberg: People are spending 50 million fewer hours on Facebook a day

 Facebook offered reassurances to investors that its digital ad business would remain highly profitable, despite a dip in usage on the social media network and an overhaul of its flagship news feed. Newslook

Mark Zuckerberg warned in January that radical changes he's making to return Facebook to its roots connecting friends and family would curtail how much time people spend there. 

He wasn't kidding. Those changes that got underway last quarter are already hitting engagement numbers, reducing time users spend on Facebook by 5%, as the giant social network shows people fewer viral videos.

"In total, we made changes that reduced time spent on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day," Zuckerberg said, in announcing the social media company's fourth-quarter results that topped Wall Street expectations.

Pressure has been building on Facebook and its CEO as the toxic content flowing through Facebook — violent live videos, fabricated news articles and divisive messages from Russian operatives that rocked the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — has been blamed for social ills. Facebook is also under fire for exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology to hook people on social media, hijacking their time and attention and undermining their well-being. In recent months, Facebook has admitted that passive use of Facebook — aimless scrolling through the news feed — can be bad for mental health.

As people show signs of gravitating away from Facebook, Zuckerberg says his personal challenge for 2018 is to fix what ails the giant social network. The focus is no longer on how much time its 2 billion-plus users spend on Facebook, but whether that time is "well spent."

So Facebook is altering the formula that determines what shows up in people's news feeds to favor status updates from friends and family that spark more "meaningful social interactions" over videos and news articles that don't get people talking to each other.

Meaningful social interactions are the new buzzwords for Facebook executives. Going forward, Zuckerberg said Facebook would measure success by how many of those interactions take place on Facebook. He did not say how Facebook determines which social interactions are meaningful. 

"I expect the amount of time people spend and some measures of engagement will go down as a result" of the changes Facebook has made, he told analysts during a conference call Wednesday. But, if Facebook does its job well, the changes "should increase the number of meaningful interactions people will have," Zuckerberg said.

It's unclear if the decline in engagement is a direct result of Facebook's interventions. Frustration with Facebook, which seemed to peak during the U.S. presidential election, may have already been driving people away, analysts say.

In January, Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser told his analysis of recent Nielsen data showed use of Facebook declined in August and September. 

"Facebook is responding to a decline in consumption, not just encouraging a decline in consumption," Wieser said at the time.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Mahaney said his most recent survey of Internet users found a slightly more negative bias towards expected time spent on Facebook.

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