Social networking, as we’ve come to know it, is probably disappearing. It was once a big draw for all kinds of people while also being a great way to collect personal data that could be used to target ads.
But everything is temporary on the internet. TikTok has created an app that is more addictive than anything. For many people, this is the most fun thing you can do on a smartphone. And Meta, whose apps have topped the app store charts for years, knows it. So Meta built a TikTok video knockoff called Reels. And last week it was announced that it is changing its flagship facebook app in something of a video app.
The Facebook app now opens to a Home tab that contains the Reels videos (the changes will come to the desktop app later, Facebook says). If you want to see the latest post from your old high school friend or on your ex’s pages, now you need to open another tab, the “Feeds” tab. That’s where the social networking features are – sort of a side attraction. (Users may like or comment on short videos, but it’s more about entertainment than socializing.)
axios Technology Editor-in-Chief Scott Rosenberg put it this way in a Monday afterMark last week as 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 culminating in Facebook’s rollout of a sweeping TikTok-esque redesign.
Facebook management now considers its core social network a “legacy” technology, Rosenberg adds later. In the tech world, “legacy” means something like 3G or dedicated MP3 players – things that will fade and be discontinued.
For a long time, those features were the main attraction. They were the catnip that kept users coming and staying (and watching ads and leaving breadcrumbs of their own personal information). During the early years, Mark Zuckerberg’s company offered a social network, a version of MySpace that was neat and well-organized. And best of all, everyone was there! It provided users with a way to keep up to date with friends’ vacations and relatives’ new baby photos, and the thrill of liking and commenting on their own posts. It was all about connecting with friends and family.
Until it wasn’t. In 2015, users’ feeds were full of content from total strangers. They saw ads, links to news articles and group posts, all carefully targeted by user preferences, browsing habits, demographics, political and religious beliefs, and a host of other cues. This allowed legitimate advertisers to reach finely segmented audiences with their message at reasonable prices.
But bad actors, both domestic and foreign, learned to exploit and weaponize the algorithm. They did this with great success during the 2016 election cycle, posting anonymous ads designed to fuel social unrest, racial prejudice and political resentment, and erode trust in American institutions, including the electoral system. Divisive content and misinformation (aka fake news) often got the most engagement. Never mind 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 blamed the company because it accidentally helped Donald Trump win 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 Analytics, a political data science group hired by the Trump campaign. During the fallout of those events, Zuckerberg tried on several occasions to redirect Facebook back to more meaningful social networks for “friends and family.” He wrote in a Message from January 2018 that Facebook users would soon start seeing more “meaningful content.” He wrote, “The first changes you’ll see are in the news feed, where you can expect 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,” the CEO said. “. . . the private parts of our social network are becoming more important than our digital city squares.”
Zuckerberg’s “Digital City Square” was and is a failure. It is not a platform for public discussion and reconciliation. It remains a platform of closed-filter bubbles. The “private” parts of the network may be more useful, but not as profitable.
Now the main algorithm on Facebook is something it calls the “recommendation engine.” It is the Facebook version of the TikTok recommendation engine, which reads users’ viewing and preference habits to suggest the next video and the next and the next.
Offering 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 sucked their personal information for ad targeting. When the free social network’s appeal wanes, something has to take its place. Coincidentally, they are 30 second videos of people scaring their cats.