In an effort to up its signal to noise ratio, Facebook may go local. The company is testing a new area of its app called “Today In,” a mix of city-specific events, announcements and local news.
For its new local hub, Facebook is starting with a small batch of test markets. Those initial cities are New Orleans, Louisiana; Olympia, Washington; Billings, Montana; Binghamton, New York; Peoria, Illinois and Little Rock, Arkansas. Users in test markets will be able to access the feature through the bottom-right menu button (the three horizontal lines) in the core Facebook app.
Facebook’s News Partnerships team is spearheading the experiment, employing both human curators and machine learning to populate the content in the new sections. (Let’s hope they go heavy on the former.)
The move comes as part of Facebook’s Journalism Project Initiative, a program the company announced in January 2017 that seeks to build out local news partnerships, among other goals. The initiative set out to improve Facebook’s rocky relationship with publishers, though as 2017 progressed its mission to “support journalism and news literacy” certainly became full-on mission critical.
While this is far from Facebook’s first foray into trying to make the Facebook experience more locally focused, the tiny batch of city-specific rollouts and at least sort of hands-on curation efforts suggest that Facebook is trying to move cautiously. Tucked away in its own hidden corner of the app, Today In isn’t prominent enough to be designed as a News Feed replacement or anything so radical — but that’s kind of a shame. Pushing to make Facebook a purpose-built tool for local communities (think utility-driven additions like Marketplace) is certainly a less dystopian vision of the platform’s future, at least compared to staying the course.
Reading local headlines and finding a band playing a show later sounds like a downright heartening shift in focus from watching Facebook’s vast tangle of digital citizens emote endlessly into their algorithmically curated voids. Unfortunately, dramatically shrinking the scope of the world’s biggest social network might not appeal to stockholders and advertisers in quite the same way that it would appeal to users.