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 is now ending with Facebook’s launch of a sweeping TikTok-like redesign.
The big picture: Under the social networking model that piggybacked on the rise of smartphones to shape the digital experiences of billions of users, following your friends’ posts has served as a hub for everything you want to do online.
Now Facebook wants to shape your online life around the algorithmically sorted likes of millions of strangers around the world.
- This is how TikTok sorts the videos it shows users, and this is how Facebook largely organizes its home screen now.
- The dominant player in social media is morphing into a form of digital mass medium, where machine learning-processed responses from hordes of anonymous users drive your content choices.
Facebook and its competitors Call this a “recognition engine” because it reliably spits out recommendations of posts from anywhere that might catch your attention.
- But it also looks a lot like a mutant TV, with an infinite number of context-free channels flashing in and out of focus at high speed.
- That’s what younger users seem to prefer right now, and it’s where Facebook expects its business to grow after new privacy rules from Apple and threats from regulators around the world have rendered its existing ad-targeting model precarious.
Between the lines: For about a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, social networks – led by Facebook, with Twitter playing an important supporting role – dominated the culture and economy of the internet.
- Their ascension came with high hopes that they could unleash waves of democratic empowerment and liberate self-expression around the world.
- However, its main effect unfolded in the transformation of the media industry and the digital advertising business.
Facebook has defeated rival MySpace and absorbed or outwitted challengers like Instagram and Snapchat, turning a simple “social graph” of human relationships into a money-making machine that helped businesses, particularly smaller businesses, target cheap ads with uncanny precision.
- Competitors have tried and failed to beat Facebook in the social networking game – most notably Google, with several forgotten efforts from Orkut to Google+.
Yes but: As profits soared and Facebook propelled itself into the exclusive club of big tech giants alongside Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, so did the problems.
- Facebook’s friend counts and like buttons turned human relationships into a depersonalized metric competition.
- Keeping up with the volume of posts became a chore, which is why by 2009 Facebook’s newsfeed defaulted to algorithmic rather than chronological sorting.
- This prompted many users, especially political organizations, to turn up the volume and try to play the Facebook program.
- Over time, critics allege, this dynamic became a driver of extremism, misinformation, hate speech and harassment.
Be smart: The TikTok-style “Discovery Engine” model shares many of the same issues.
- Posts are even less rooted in a web of social relationships.
- The larger the crowd, the louder the threshold for speech to be heard.
Remarkable: As it rolls out its changes — quickly on mobile apps, “later this year” for desktop/browser users — Facebook will continue to connect old-school friends and family via a sub-tab. These posts are arranged chronologically, as some users have long wished for.
- The move also helps Facebook avoid claims of sorting bias and keeps the company one step ahead of regulators who are threatening to restrict its algorithms.
But the era in which social networking served as the primary experience of most users of the Internet is behind us. So is Twitter, Facebook’s main surviving Western rival.
- Twitter never found a reliable business model that opened it up to a takeover bid from Elon Musk. Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing litigation, Twitter’s future is cloudy at best.
Our thought bubble: Meta and Facebook’s leaders now view the entire Facebook social networking machinery as an outdated operation.
What’s next: Messaging will continue to grow as a central channel for private, one-to-one, and small group communications.
- Meta also owns a large chunk of that market, thanks to Facebook Messenger and its ownership of WhatsApp.
- At the other end of the media spectrum, the “discovery engines” powered by TikTok and Meta will go head-to-head with streaming services to capture billions of eyeballs around the world and sell that attention to advertisers.
All of this leaves a vacuum in the center – the realm of forums, ad hoc grouping, and small communities that first created excitement around the advent of the Internet in the pre-Facebook era.
- Facebook’s closure of its own social network could open up a new space for innovation in this terrain, where relative newcomers like Discord are already beginning to thrive.