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.