Study Hacks Blog

Facebook’s Fatal Flaw?

June 17th, 2020 · 39 comments

In Episode 4 of my Deep Questions podcast (posted Monday), a reader named Jessica asked my opinion about the future of social media. I have a lot of thoughts on this issue, but in my response I focused on one point in particular that I’ve been toying with recently: Facebook may have accidentally developed a fatal flaw.

To understand this claim, we have to rewind to the early days of this social platform. The original pitch for Facebook was that it made it easier to connect online with people you knew. The content model was simple: you setup a profile, people you knew setup profiles, and everyone could then check each others’ vacation pictures and relationship statuses.

For this model to be valuable, the people you knew had to also use the service. This is why Mark Zuckerberg focused at first on college campuses. These were closed communities in which it was easy to build up enough critical user mass to make Facebook fun.

Once Facebook moved into the range of hundreds of millions of users, competition became difficult. The value of a network with a hundred million users was exponentially larger than one with a million, as the former was much more likely to connect you with the people you cared about. It was on the strength of this model that Facebook emerged as a powerful social internet monopoly.

The problem, however, was that they weren’t making enough money.

As their IPO loomed, Facebook executives feared that the appeal of checking the profiles of friends and family wasn’t strong enough to get people to use the service all day long. It was an activity you would occasionally do when bored; they needed to find a way to make their platform stickier.

So Facebook did something radical: it blew up its original content model and replaced it with something novel: the bottomless scrolling newsfeed. Instead of checking the profiles of friends and family, you now encounter a stream of articles sourced from all over the network, handpicked by optimized statistical algorithms to push your buttons and stoke the fires of the elusive quality known as engagement.

Facebook shifted from connection to distraction; an entertainment giant built on content its users produced for free.

This shift was massively profitable because it significantly increased the time Facebook’s gigantic user base spent on the platform each day. Tapping that blue and gray icon on your phone now promised instant satisfaction, and our days are filled with endless moments were such appeasement is welcome.

The thought that keeps capturing my attention, however, is that perhaps in making this short term move toward increased profit, Facebook set itself up for long term trouble.

When this platform shifted from connection to distraction it abdicated its greatest advantage: network effects. If Facebook’s main pitch is that it’s entertaining, it must then compete with everything else that’s entertaining. This includes podcasts, and YouTube, and streaming video services, not to mention niche long tail social media platforms that can’t offer you access to your old roommate, but can connect you with a small number of people who are interested in the same things as you. Meanwhile the social interactions that used to occur on these platforms have moved to more flexible and simpler mediums, like group text messages. Facebook used to be the place where grandparents sought new baby pictures. Today, these images are just as likely to be spread in a nondescript  iMessage thread, with no creepy data mining or malicious attention engineering required.

I’m not so sure that a newsfeed made up of posts and links generated by random social media users can compete with this increasingly optimized world of targeted entertainment and streamlined digital socialization. Facebook found a way to grow to a market capitalization of $600 billion, but may have accidentally crippled itself in the process.

Or not. But one thing I know for sure is that it would be myopic to believe that the future of social media is going to look just like it does today.

39 thoughts on “Facebook’s Fatal Flaw?

  1. Michael says:

    “ Meanwhile the social interactions that used to occur on these platforms have moved to more flexible and simpler mediums, like group text messages. “

    If this counts, I only use the messenger app now for this very reason. I’m signed into my Facebook because occasionally I have to do admin work on pages I run. But I block Facebook on my phone. I don’t have it signed in anywhere else. Facebook is really annoying. I notice your blog lacks a lot of the bells and whistles that keeps people hooked, so I can see you’re not as focused on money as they are. Your content is what draws us in.

    I keep forgetting that skill really is rewarded in the long run.

  2. Deb says:

    Obviously Facebook knows this and they’ve dealt with it by acquiring new social media companies with a better model like Whatsapp and Instagram.

    Though Whatsapp continues to be ad-free, there has been some talk of introducing them. The only thing stopping FB from doing so is the fear of users leaving for other platforms.

    Platforms like Mighty Networks, Reddit and Discord allow users to make these small communities but as the number of users grow, the membership model might not be able to sustain the new users. At that point, you can:

    1. Change your model to something more sustainable like an ad-based model.
    2. Get acquired by big names like Google, Microsoft, Twitter or FB.

    If you go with 1., you’ll eventually have to introduce the attention grabbing mechanisms which FB and other such platforms have or your parent company will introduce it once your userbase grows.

    (Option 2 becomes inevitable because apart from the attractive offers the big names give, they also use other unethical practices like copying your features, restricting you data etc. until you sell or become irrelevant)

    The typical story is wait till your infrastructure can’t handle the new users and you’ll have to change your ideals.

    I think the core of the problem is the sustainability that this ad-based model provides.

    1. Andrew Samtoy says:

      Yeah – I have the feeling that if Zuckerberg was to read this, his response would be something along the lines of, “The future of Facebook is something like WhatsApp? Cool, I bought it in 2014.”

      1. Deb says:

        And he and others will continue to do this, they’re pretty good at finding and eliminating potential competitors, here’s a video explaining the unethical practices I alluded to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hvf748ezQBE

        I wonder what would happen if suddenly everyone was using browsers with ad-blockers, switching them off for content they want to support and vice versa. The platforms and their massive resources will then be driven towards more relevant things than trying to figure out how to make a teenager scroll for another minute.

        1. Michael says:

          I think a properly explained Viral video explaining this would get the ball rolling on that( the ad blocker scenario you mentioned. Care to take a stab at up ending things as we know it?

    2. Study Hacks says:

      You forget option (3) which is to not grow beyond a few thousand users. I know owners of these networks that clear high six figure annual salaries, have really engage and impactful audiences, and have no interest in trying to expand the network into something much larger.

      1. Bob Landers says:

        Anybody Remember Myspace from 2 decades ago I remember this outlet was going to be as big as Facebook is today until Facebook and Twitter killed them off for users. If more people approximately 30%-40% delete their accounts from facebook owned venues then will it gain traction and face the same issues that Myspace did. I remember Myspace targeted high school students in the early 2000’s when I was a freshman student at the time. Originally MySpace was a place where High School Students can chat with each other and show their skateboarding pictures at the time.

        Now Social Media has changed in 20 years to discuss about “Your President ranted here today on this venue”

      2. Deb says:

        But audience growth is inevitable even if the platforms’ paradigm is not driven by that goal. Thanks to thinkers like you and the value users get out of these platforms, the user base keeps growing. As more people come across the issues related to contemporary social platforms and discover the value they get through these new platforms, big companies will eventually turn their focus towards these platforms assuming that we get more mindful about our digital lives in the future. You then come back to 2.

        The problem here is not determined by the company’s interests, as long as you want to keep your platform open and you’re offering value, users will come.

        Even if you survive the monopoly of these big platforms, a business model change is necessary.

    3. Joe says:

      Was Instagram ever a better model than FB? I feel like a big part of that acquisition was to take the bad ideas from Instagram and make them more universal for the FB experience.

  3. Jared Dees says:

    This is probably an underlying reason why Facebook shifted its focus to Facebook groups both in its TV ads and its algorithm. If Facebook is the only way to access those Facebook groups then it shifts the purpose of logging in back to connection rather than distraction.

  4. anna czurylowska says:

    Tristan Harris is great source for anyone intetested in Social media impact. He calls it human downgrading. He would be wonderful guest on this podcast. Cal are you ever afraid of backlash on part of FB. By the way, I deleted FB and instagram last year after Reading your book. You can use instagram(checking public profile) even when you are not user.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I doubt FB cares about me…

      Tristan is great. I talk about him extensively in my last book…

      1. Jerry Landers says:

        https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/06/29/884881853/facebook-boycott-grows-ford-joins-coca-cola-starbucks-and-other-brands

        Hey Cal You might want to talk about this one. And yes this is something I never expected even though I deleted my Facebook Account Last Year now Big companies are boycotting facebook owned outlets such as Instagram and Facebook for Hate Speech issues. I expected people to delete their facebook accounts like after the 2020 elections here in the USA and as soon as people start complaining about their data being compromised for Political gains.

        I deleted my facebook account for a similar reason though.

  5. In his book “Platform Capitalism” (2016) Nick Srnicek argues that new competitors will not be able to dismantle these monopolies because there is not enough capital investment to counteract data access, network effects and the trajectories that these monopolies have, such as Google and Facebook, since many of their services are also free.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I disagree some with Nick on this point. One of the arguments I’m trying to make here is that the shift in content model diminishes Facebook’s network effect advantage, making them much more vulnerable to disruption.

      1. Bob Landers says:

        Anybody remember Chat rooms and when Yahoo and AOL were then the most powerful Internet outlets in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s. It took a series of backlash over how (Gen Y at the time teenagers) were exploited in chat rooms and the data breach of Yahoo and AOL to create a platform shift on the internet/apps in the past 15 years.

  6. JH says:

    Cal, you should check out some videos by Dr. Alok Kanojia on his Youtube channel HealthyGamerGG. He’s done an amazing job complementing your discourse on social media by talking about the impact of video games on your psychology, and giving advice on how to reap the benefits from video games without it adhering from your life goals.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Video game issues are huge and don’t get enough attention.

      1. James says:

        Among gamers these issues certainly do get attention. Gaming addiction is a real concern, and there’s increased concern about microtransactions (generally seen as reprehensible among the gaming community) and access issues (tension between being able to play the game and always-online DLC; see the Diablo 3 release for a case study). There are any number of people speaking on the issues with the gaming industry, games, game addiction, and the like. Extra Credits is a good one. A lot of Let’s Players do this as well (Dark Souls has some fantastic examples, which dive into the unique ways games can tell stories). 90% of any art form is crap; if you compare the 10% that’s not, games hold up very well when compared with movies and books.

        Frankly, though, a lot of the issues typically brought up in these discussions are overblown. EVERY form of entertainment has been accused of the same thing. Movies, TV, newspapers, plays, various types of music, even books and writing. Games are a different way to tell stories, and are not substantively different from these other forms of entertainment. When some new medium comes along–and as gamers become the dominant members of society (the average video game player is in their 30s with a middle-class job and kids at this point)–we will forget that video games were supposed to be evil and blame the new bogyman for these ills.

        1. John says:

          Good information James.

          On video games: The thing that distinguishes video games today from other forms of demonized entertainment of the past (and even video games of ~20 years ago) is that they are being sliced apart by psychologists and algorithm wizards to maximize both time-on-device and dollars-into-machine (“productivity” in gambling parlance, which not coincidentally is starting to show up a lot in video gaming) in ways that were impossible when those 34 year olds with middle-class jobs (hi) were playing Super Mario World. Those kids may have rushed through their homework and tried to skip soccer practice, but nobody was trying to get them to buy gems with their mom’s credit card to unlock Blue Yoshi in time for next week’s raid. This is a far more insidious competitive environment than when cartoon producers competed to sell more toys or when dime novel churn-houses competed to sell more Westerns.

          I recently read Addiction By Design by Dr. Natasha Dow Schüll. It is, in part, a history of the evolution of machine gambling through the 1990s and 2000s into the algorithm-driven nightmare that it is today. I’m afraid that video games are now going through this too.

          1. James says:

            That falls under the heading of “90% of anything is crap”, though. Gamers largely consider microtransactions to be gouache, and pay-to-win is a pejorative. And not all games are like that. Minecraft, Subnautica, Dark Souls, the Halo franchise, and others have demonstrated that depth can be profitable. They also demonstrate that a lot of things people assume are foundational to games (combat, for example) aren’t necessary to have a good game.

            Game designers are catching on, too. There’s a mobile game I play on occasion that allows microtransactions, but does not require them. It’s a fun game, kind of a light Diablo clone. Without paying for various things it takes a while to get to the top ranks, but I’m using it to kill time in hotels after a 12 hour day in the field; I’m perfectly happy spending time instead of money.

            Maybe a good way to think of it is like the difference between TV and movies. There’s a market for fluff–Friends, Parks and Rec, that sort of thing. There’s a market for deeper stuff as well–dramas, documentaries, etc. And the existence of TV hasn’t eliminated the movie format. In gaming we’re seeing a similar split–you have casual games, games that you play for 20 minutes each day then ignore, and you have deeper games, which require more of a time commitment and which try to have a more significant message behind them.

            For my money, the bigger issue with gaming is that it’s focused solely on the present. People balk at the idea of playing an older game, as if older was somehow inferior. Most entertainment media isn’t like that. No one bats an eye at someone who watches Seinfeld re-runs, or Casablanca. If someone catches me reading “The Meditations” or Jules Vern they consider me an intellectual. But if someone hears I’m playing through Morrowind they look at me like I’m an alien. And a lot of that is because game studios haven’t figured out how to monetize older games yet. Though even that is beginning to change–Nintendo realized that the emulator community existed because the old games still have value, and provided a way to provide those games while making money (which I consider virtuous).

  7. Study Hacks says:

    I should make a clarifying point about this article…

    I’m talking about Facebook the social platform and not Facebook the company. As several of you have correctly pointed out over email, Facebook the company likely recognizes this flaw and has been investing heavily in other technologies, like WhatsApp and Oculus to try to shore up its dominance even if/when its flagship network begins to flag.

    1. EA says:

      Cal – I agree with you. It’s clear that Facebook (platform) is headed to being somewhat irrelevant in the great scheme of things. Younger people already despise it (my kids included), and lately most people are getting fed up by the continued negativity on it. I think that Facebook (platform) will become like the Mac for Apple, that is an important but ultimately much less relevant part of the company.

  8. John Kim says:

    Cal, this blog post lacks accurate context and is conflating a number of ideas. Facebook launched its newsfeed in February of 2009. Prior to that, Facebook was primary a wall product. You discovered content by visiting each of your friend’s walls (profile. In 2008, Facebook was the number 2 social network to MySpace (which was also a wall product). They were also facing a new upstart called, Twitter. Twitter was gaining buzz and threatening FB’s position because they had a superior user experience called the feed. At the time, Twitter’s feed was a far superior way to discover content. Mark knew it and pivoted fast. After the pivot, Facebook shifted its trajectory and massively increased engagement, visits, and daily repeat rate. By May of 2009, Facebook became the market leader and surpassed MySpace and dusted Twitter. Yes, superior engagement has led to far more monetization opportunities but the main reason for the pivot was to drive consumer engagement. The feed is a better product. Facebook did not abdicate its advantage. Facebook intensified its network effect advantage. Facebook’s shift to groups is to take advantage of the idea that within a larger network, smaller, tighter networks can form (Reed’s Law).

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Your history here matches what I wrote. The service used to focus on profiles (wall-based content) and switched to a feed into order to significantly increase the time users spent on the platform, which worked.

      But this *does* abdicate the network effect advantage because it no longer matters if my specific friends or family are on Facebook. Once it becomes a Twitter-style algorithmic feed of generically interesting stuff, all that matters are that there are enough interesting people on the service to keep the feed engaging.

      That’s a much more precarious market position as now lots and lots of services can compete on the same playing field of simply needing to provide engaging information.

    2. Joe says:

      Is increased engagement the same as superior engagement? How much of the massive split in public discourse, with people more and more angrily talking past each other, has the curated/algorithmic feed contributed to? Was the gain for Facebook investors’ portfolios worth the loss to civility and trust in the public square?

      With how much blatantly fake news proliferates the feed of most users, is it a better product?

      The research literature seems to explicitly say no to all of these things.

  9. Boris says:

    People will discover the joys of local interaction and support as their electronic entertainment options shrivel and disappear.

  10. Islam El-Rougy says:

    Cal, do you have any concrete evidence that supports the claim that this was Charlie Cheever’s and Facebook’s intention when they introduced the news feed feature? I agree with the effect it had but don’t know of any data supporting that this was intended.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I think Facebook at the time said the feed was for making the experience better (which it did, in the sense that it made it more entertaining to check Facebook). It also occurred, however, early in that 2008 – 2012 reinvention period where Sandberg arrived and Facebook got much more serious about monetizing their users through increased active user minutes and data mining, deploying aggressive attention engineering tactics to succeed in keeping people glued to their phone. Keeping people starting at their screen was a huge focus during this period.

  11. Thank you for this post, an intriguing proposition. My worry about Facebook is that its loss of the network effect won’t matter, since Facebook is exchanging its value as a community network for its focus on capturing endless attention and creating “flow” through the endless feed with no stop cues. The app now has red notifications at the bottom for videos in your feed, and if you click on one video, it’s nearly impossible to hit the pause or stop button, and if you do, the next video begins to play. Also, you might be in a group of like-minded people (I was in the Antique Typewriter Collectors group, for example, with 6,000+ members), and every time someone posts in the group, up pops the red notification button. It’s maddening. Facebook is finding new ways to capture and keep attention as an addictive platform, “addictive” being the operative word here. Thus, thanks to your books and to other books I’ve loved by other authors writing in a similar vein (Jaron Lanier, Shoshana Zuboff, Nicholas Carr), I’ve deleted my Facebook account, My two author pages (under my real name and under my pen name, A. J. Banner) are administered by a friend, not me. But I left Facebook because of the addictive effects, the predictive behavior modeling, and a host of other reasons aside from its move away from the network effect. I see people or call them on the phone or type or write letters to them if I want to stay in touch. So while I think your idea is intriguing, I’m not sure Facebook has a *fatal* flaw, at least not yet. Not until everyone gets the heck off of that toxic platform. Thanks for your wonderful books, BTW. You’ve changed my life–as I know many people tell you!

    1. Bob Landers says:

      The only way people will really leave Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp is if the people claim that their data was breached as a ploy in the 2020 elections.
      All one has to do is go back to the Cambridge Analytica incident from 2016.

  12. Madeleine says:

    I’m an artist and have trouble with instagram. I’m a very sensitive person, and have learned that social media is incredibly damaging to my mental health.

    However, I have been told repeatedly that not to have an account is akin to career suicide, as no one will be able to discover my work, and illustration agencies are facing clients every day who ask for artists to have a certain amount of followers before working with them, regardless of whether the artist is the right fit or not. That seems like it’s not enough just to post work, but to be on there constantly to build a following, which I’m unable to do.

    I managed to ignore Instagram while employed as an illustrator in house, but am being made redundant due to covid-19, and will have to go freelance to stay in my profession. Should I try and make Instagram work for me, and if so is there a healthy way to go about it?

    The idea of putting work on there to be judged by an amount of likes cripples my creativity, and I find it hard not to look at that number, or compare my work to others more talented than me. I’m thinking about asking my friend to post everything for me and not let me know the outcome. However, part of me feels I should not keep creating free work for Instagram and add to the infinite scroll.

    Do you think a blog and email list can work in this situation, or is there so much art available that no one would care enough to do so?

    I notice a lot of artists basically create the same piece every day, as instagram rewards repetition, fast and shallow work.

    I’d love to hear from other people who have struggled with letting go of social media or have stuck with it and managed to use it in a different way.

    1. Deb says:

      You can try and find a plug-in that hides the like as other things that distract you, if that doesn’t work then try blocking certain elements using the CSS Selector.

      I’ve been able to use the second to remove a lot of distracting things from websites I visit often.

    2. - J says:

      Hi Madeline,

      I am a content producer who struggles with the idea of social networks for this very reason — the thought of putting work ‘out there’ for exposure and the risk of getting unhelpful feedback is something that is deeply uncomfortable for me. There is enormous pressure for any content creator to put their work out there on multiple platforms just to ‘keep up’ and the extra hours needed to write captions and format content for best use with a particular platform becomes physically and mentally draining. Worse still, you are competing with feeds where it takes seconds instead of days to produce content.

      You’re also competing with content aggregators that are disproportionately rewarded for reposting your work often without credit.

      My personal approach which is still crystallising is as follows:

      – If you must use a platform, choose one that is compatible with the kind of work you’re doing. My work is visual, therefore Instagram reluctantly is my best choice as the primary way to build my audience.

      – Since the beginning of the year, I have been experimenting with different types of content and seeing what happens. I’ve found what works is letting people into the process of your content, and regardless of the outcome people are fascinated with the process. This requires you to reframe why you use a service like Instagram: rather than be a shop window, you can use it as a way to show off your working progress to build and engaged community.

      – Use it as a way to get people to sign up to something that you own like a website or mailing list, otherwise you’re relying on a platform.

      – If you’re happy to see your work being used for non commercial or commercial use and you want to get exposure, then giving your work away on Unsplash is a great way of getting exposure without the negative feedback mechanism. The website currently receives 18 billion views a month — even a minuscule fraction of that is worth more than having to compete on a service like Instagram. You can use those numbers to entice agencies if you truly desire representation.

      – Ultimately the best bet from what I’ve suspected (and it’s great to read Cal writing about it) is to build your own, where you can work on building a small base of people who will commission or buy your work and allow you to build a career around it.

    3. Julia says:

      Hi Madeline,

      I’m an illustrator and I quit all social networks last year, except Youtube. For me Instagram and Facebook was the most damaging – in terms of comparing my work to others all the time, and as a time sink that sucked my concentration away. It destroyed my creativity bit by bit. I have not regretted deleting the profiles at all.

      As for promoting your work, build a website, use it as your own platform. Consider blogging if you have interesting things to say (artists usually have), and build your audience there.

      People will follow to your website you if they’re interested in what you have to say.
      Forget about putting out “content” every day for social platforms. You’re not a content generator for shallow scrolling (return for you = 0), you’re a creative with an awesome potential to dive deep into a topic and present it in a powerful way. You will never get great freelance clients if you focus on social media. You will get great clients by becoming a great artist, and for this you need the time to invest in your work. Forget about clients who want social media celebrities as artists – why should it play a role for you?

      For getting freelance work, I find it to be much more useful to network with the right people directly – art buyers, publishers, etc. True, some artists might have gotten jobs by posting on social media, but is it worth it? For me it definitely isn’t. I’m happy missing out on that.

      Youtube is the last “social” platform that I’m on, and I’m using it to present ideas via videos to my audience. I also did a video a while back on the topic of social media, I hope the link is allowed:
      https://youtu.be/31yF8eJJ8z0

      Hope you find it useful. Keep on walking the walk. It’s possible without social media!

  13. Michael says:

    Dr. Newport,

    Is there a page on this website that lists an archive of all of your posts? It might be nice to have a list of all the article titles to get into some of your older posts.

    Thanks,
    Michael

  14. JH says:

    Cal, speaking of long-tail social media, you should read up on modern Discord culture if you’re not too aware of it.

    Discord servers are like the reincarnation of web 2.0 forums, with the added benefit of ease of moderation. This makes Discord servers the perfect sanctuary for less privileged groups of people to find support in an otherwise hostile place that is the internet. I’ve personally found tremendous support early on in my transition. I know that many disabled people find resources and friends – to whom they don’t need to explain themselves over and over again – on Discord as well. Plural users (i.e. those with dissociative identity disorder) have even created a bot system to ease the use of a single account by headmates (multiple people in the same body.) Discord remains the only social media account I kept in my digital decluttering process.

    In reading your works, it’s too obvious to me that it is, at the end of the day, a masculine perspective. That is to be expected, and that is not a condemnation of your excellent writings. I’ve seen you draw from works of Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan, who both have mostly male, conservative to centrist, anglophone (often American) audiences. I have also read a critique of Digital Minimalism which articulates my vague dislike of the analog leisure chapter better than I ever can: that it focuses on analog hobbies that are most obvious to men (metallurgy, CrossFit, fixing things) while glossing over the likes of handicrafts – excellent hobby by the way – which appeal more to a female audience.

    It is of my belief that your writing will only seek to benefit from incorporating the perspectives of less represented demographics and how the internet serves as a useful tool that benefits their core values of supporting each other in an otherwise harsh world.

    – JH

  15. Deb says:

    Cal’s personal experiences obviously play into his writing, to expect him to review something he hasn’t devoted time to properly might be a blunder. His naivety on mindfulness meditation is an excellent example…

    I share your enthusiasm about Discord, I too left it out in, it’s the only “social media” I use. But I prefer small servers to larger ones, <1000 members.

  16. Laura says:

    I am so excited to hear you have a podcast! I’ve been thinking for some time that I would so enjoy listening to a Cal Newport podcast. Can’t wait to dive in.

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