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Facebook’s News Feed Chief Explains New ‘Rocket Ship’ Feature

Some Facebook users around the world have recently noticed a rocket ship icon that has popped up next to the News Feed tab on the menu bar. Facebook executives have kept mum about the new feature, until now.

Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s head of News Feed, described the rocket ship icon as an experiment with a relatively small number of users to expose them to information from people and pages that they have not chosen to like or follow. Mosseri, who has been at Facebook for nearly a decade, spoke Monday night in conversation with Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein during the publication’s kickoff dinner, presented by IBM, leading in to its Entertainment and Technology Summit on Tuesday in New York.

“People can learn about new stories from sources they are not connected to,” Mosseri said of the tab, which he characterized as in keeping with the overall mission of News Feed: “to connect people with the stories that matter to them.” The information stream in the rocket ship tab is curated by Facebook based on algorithms that deduce a user’s interests by their Facebook usage patterns.

Mosseri explained that Facebook’s recommendation architecture is based on “educated guesses” that come from the tidal wave of user data that is constantly studied. No detail is too small to ignore, he said. “We look at little things, like when you watch a video, do you change it to full screen, do you turn up the volume?” he said. “We try to look for patterns.”

Mosseri said the space vessel motif was chosen by a designer on the project who Mosseri jokingly described as “very, very Irish.” At first executives figured it was a placeholder image. But as subsequent iterations were developed and studied, the rocket ship stayed. Finally, Mosseri asked the designer, “Why a rocket?” His answer is illustrative of the freewheeling culture of collaboration at the social media giant.

“Because everybody loves rocket ships,” the designer replied, per Mosseri. “I had a hard time arguing with him about that.”

Mosseri admitted that he’s unsure if the rocket ship feature will take off with users. But he cited it as an example of Facebook’s ethos when it comes to test-driving concepts and features on the platform. Fielding ideas that may fall flat with users is an inevitable part of the learning process.

“We believe deeply in experimenting and failing fast, and then learning from those mistakes and not repeating them,” Mosseri said. “I try to make sure my teams have the leeway to try a lot of things, to be really smart and skeptical and curious. When things don’t work, we call a spade a spade and when they do, we nurture them, grow them and give them more resources.”

Mosseri said it’s impossible to overstate the importance of entertainment to the global conversation on Facebook. More than 1 billion of the service’s roughly 2 billion users are connected to a page connected to some form of entertainment. Some 860 million are connected to a music-related page, while 770 million are connected to TV and 680 million are connected to a film-related page.

“These conversations are happening because people care about entertainment,” he said.

Among other topics Mosseri raised:

Fake news: Mosseri said the bulk of faux news postings on Facebook are generated by spammers who are financially motivated rather than ideologically driven to influence political discourse. Facebook is focused in “disrupting the incentives” for such posts. The social media giant is also focused in efforts to identify blatantly false news posts and stop them from spreading. Education is also crucial. “We need to give people more context to make more informed decisions about what to read, believe and share,” he said. “The urgency is high. We take it very seriously. We want no part of it on our platform.”

Video monetization: Facebook is focused on harnessing the formidable power of its video platform. Partnerships with entertainment firms are key to that effort. “We’re looking for ways to figure out how to do that together,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to do it on our own.” Mosseri cited a recent example of Reese Witherspoon going on Facebook Live to help promote the finale of her HBO series “Big Little Lies.” The actress connected with fans by naming more than 200 Facebook users during the course of her broadcast. “That was an interesting example of content designed for Facebook Live that helped create awareness and excitement around a show that already has a lot of excitement,” he said.

(Pictured: Facebook’s Adam Mosseri and Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein)

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