My initial reaction to the news earlier this month that Facebook was down-weighting publishers and brands to focus on family and friends and “meaningful interactions” was “merde, am I out of a job?” but it didn’t take me long to be reassured.
Ultimately the platform was designed to be addictive – it was consciously engineered to produce dopamine hits in order to keep people coming back for more. A recent report by eMarkete revealed that adults average 51 minutes a day on social platforms, with Facebook accounting for at least 25 minutes of daily usage. With 2 billion monthly active users worldwide, aged 13+, the company has succeeded in its aim to become a fundamental part of society.
The obvious question therefore is, is Facebook prepared to loosen its grip on society to be able to achieve “success” in its new emphasis on well-being? We know from the announcement that Facebook doesn’t mind if people end up spending less time on its platform. Yet what is crucial to note is that, seemingly, their fundamental principles will not change.
Facebook’s business model relies on the need for social validation. The need to get that dopamine hit when X amount of people like your photo or when someone tags you in a meme; it's what keeps people coming back for more (and it is essentially why advertising revenue has been so lucrative). Changing this core premise requires a monumental cultural shift within one of the largest companies in the world and, if done incorrectly, could destroy any future growth and jeopardise the platform.
Take Facebook messenger, for example, which imposes mandatory read receipts. Other platforms let you turn this off but Facebook has so far refused to make it optional. The status bar too tells you who is currently online or how long they have been offline for. These details are designed to be manipulative; they pressure you to respond immediately to avoid the social awkwardness of ignoring someone or accidentally deeming someone unworthy of reply.
What’s more, does interacting with something actually mean it’s good for us? If a person orders a takeaway pizza four or five times a week, does that mean they have a meaningful relationship with Deliveroo? Or does it mean that they’re developing an unhealthy addiction to junk food?
Facebook took last week’s announcement to highlight how engaging live videos can be, receiving six times as many interactions as regular videos. But does that mean they are good? I hold my hand up, I’ve watched live videos of ice melting taking bets in the comments about what time it’ll liquify. Needless to say that was a low point in my social media usage and I would never count that as meaningful experience. But will Facebook?
In short, I am not too concerned about the future of the paid social media industry. Facebook will inevitably take a long time to completely transform its business plan to effectively implement this strategy. They will work with advertisers to create new best practices to ensure continued revenue. In fact, this is probably why they have kept their definition of “meaningful” so vague – to give them room to adapt and ensure they maintain a profitable business. Indeed, this may turn into another exciting development in advertising, with brands on Facebook leading the way in personal adverts.
So instead of fearing this change, I welcome it. I am glad Facebook is starting 2018 with a mission to build trust again and I am intrigued to see how it will materialise.