Social networks as we know them are probably dead. It was once a huge draw for all types of people while also being an amazing way to collect personal data that could be used to target ads.
But everything on the Internet is temporary. TikTok has developed an app that is more addicting than anything before. For many people, it’s the funnest thing to do on a smartphone. And Meta, whose apps have topped app store charts for years, knows this. So Meta built a TikTok video copy called Reels. And it announced last week that it would be converting its flagship Facebook app into some sort of video app.
The Facebook app now opens to a Home tab that contains the Reels videos (the changes will be made later in the desktop app, Facebook says). If you want to see your old school friend’s latest post or lurk in your ex’s pages, you now need to open another tab, the “Feeds” tab. That’s where the social networking features are – sort of a side attraction. (Users can like or comment on short videos, but that’s more about entertainment than connecting.)
axios As Scott Rosenberg, Managing Editor of Technology, put it in a Monday post: “Last week marked the end of the social networking era that began with the rise of Friendster in 2003, shaped two decades of internet growth and now ends with Facebook Rolling out a major TikTok-like redesign.”
Facebook management now views its core social network as “legacy” technology, Rosenberg later adds. In the tech world, “legacy” means something like 3G or dedicated MP3 players – things that are fading and being phased out.
For a long time, these features were the main attraction. They were the catnip that kept users coming and staying (and seeing ads and leaving breadcrumbs of their own personal information). During its early years, Mark Zuckerberg’s company offered a social network, a clean and well-organized version of MySpace. And best of all: everyone was there! It offered users the ability to keep up with friends’ vacations and relatives’ baby photos, and the thrill of liking and commenting on their own posts. It was about connecting with friends and family.
Until it wasn’t. By 2015, users’ feeds were full of content from total strangers. They saw ads, links to news articles, and group posts, all carefully targeted based on user preferences, browsing habits, demographics, political and religious beliefs, and numerous other signals. This enabled serious advertisers to reach finely segmented target groups with their message at reasonable prices.
But bad actors at home and abroad have learned how to exploit and weaponize the algorithm. They did this to great effect during the 2016 election cycle, running anonymous ads aimed at fomenting social unrest, racial prejudice and political rancor, and undermining trust in US institutions, including the electoral system. Controversial content and misinformation (aka fake news) often received the most engagement. Regardless of the fact that much of the divisive content was posted by strangers, it had the effect of driving very personal wedges between friends and families, ultimately alienating many users.
By the end of the 2016 election, Facebook had strayed far from the friends and family social network it once was. Many people accused the company of accidentally helping Donald Trump take office. It didn’t help that Facebook also allowed the personal social data of millions of its users to get into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a political data science group hired by the Trump campaign. On several occasions during the aftermath of these events, Zuckerberg attempted to steer Facebook toward more meaningful social networking for “friends and family.” He wrote in a January 2018 post that Facebook users would soon start seeing more “meaningful content.” He wrote: “The first changes you will see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.”
At the F8 developer conference the following year, he said Facebook’s “next chapter” would focus on private communications. “I believe the future is private,” said the CEO. “. . . The private parts of our social network will be more important than our digital city spaces.”
Zuckerberg’s “Digital Town Square” was and is a failure. It is not a platform for public discussion and reconciliation. A platform of closed filter bubbles remains. The “private” parts of the network may be more useful, but not as profitable.
Well, the main algorithm on Facebook is called the “Recommendation Engine”. It’s the Facebook version of the TikTok recommendation engine that reads users’ video viewing habits and preferences to suggest the next video and the next and the next.
Serving videos produced by complete strangers is very likely the future of Facebook. For most of its history, the company’s model has lured users with a free social network and then siphoned off their personal information for ad targeting. When the free social network’s appeal wanes, something has to take its place. It’s just that it’s going to be 30 second videos of people scaring their cats.