Mark last week as the end of the social media era, which began with the rise of Friendster in 2003, shaped two decades of internet growth, and is now ending with Facebook rolling out a sweeping overhaul like TikTok.
The big picture: As part of the social networking model, which relied on the rise of smartphones to shape billions of digital user experiences, following your friends’ posts served as a hub for anything you might aim for. to do online.
Now Facebook wants to shape your life online based on the algorithmically sorted preferences of millions of strangers around the world.
- This is how TikTok sorts the videos it shows to users, and this is largely how Facebook will now organize its home screen.
- The dominant player in social media is transforming into a kind of digital mass media, in which the reactions of hordes of anonymous users, processed by machine learning, determine the selection of your content.
Facebook and its competitors call it a “discovery engine” because it reliably spits out recommendations for posts from everywhere that might catch your eye.
- But it also looks a lot like a mutant TV with an infinite number of context-free channels flashing at high speeds.
- That’s what younger users seem to prefer right now, and that’s where Facebook expects its business growth to be, now that Apple’s new privacy rules and threats from regulators around the world have made its existing advertising targeting model precarious.
Between the lines: For about a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, social media – led by Facebook, with Twitter playing an important supporting role – dominated internet culture and economics.
- Their rise came with high hopes that they could unleash waves of democratic empowerment and unleash self-expression around the world.
- But their main impact has appeared in the transformation of the media industry and the digital advertising sector.
Facebook beat rival MySpace and absorbed or foiled challengers like Instagram and Snapchat as it turned a simple “social graph” of human relationships into a money-making machine that helped businesses, especially small businesses, target cheap ads with astonishing precision.
- Rivals has tried and failed to beat Facebook at the social networking game – notably Google, with multiple efforts overlooked from Orkut to Google+.
Yes, but: As profits rose and pushed Facebook into the exclusive club of Big Tech giants alongside Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, so did the problems.
- Facebook friend accounts and “Like” buttons have turned human relationships into a competition of depersonalized metrics.
- Tracking message volume has become a chore, so starting in 2009, Facebook’s News Feed defaulted to algorithmic rather than chronological sorting.
- This caused many users, especially political organizations, to turn up the volume and try to play Facebook’s program.
- Over time, critics have charged, this dynamic has become a driver of extremism, misinformation, hate speech and harassment.
Be smart: The TikTok-style “discovery engine” model shares many of the same issues.
- Publications are even less rooted in a fabric of social relations.
- The larger the crowd, the stronger the threshold for speech to be heard.
To note : As it rolls out its changes – quickly to mobile apps, “later this year” for desktop/browser users – Facebook will continue to provide old-school friends and family networks via a subsidiary tab. These messages will be listed in chronological order, as some users have wanted for a long time.
- The move also helps Facebook avoid allegations of bias in its sorting and keeps the company ahead of regulators threatening to restrict its algorithms.
But the time in which social media was the primary Internet experience for most users is moving behind us. This also applies to Twitter, Facebook’s main surviving Western rival.
- Twitter never found a reliable business model, which opened it up to an offer to buy Elon Musk. Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing legal battle, Twitter’s future is cloudy at best.
Our thought bubble: Meta and Facebook management now consider Facebook’s entire social network machine a legacy operation.
And after: Messaging will continue to grow as a central channel for private, individual and small group communications.
- Meta also owns a big chunk of that market, thanks to Facebook Messenger and its ownership of WhatsApp.
- At the other end of the media spectrum, “discovery engines” run by TikTok and Meta will compete with streaming services to capture billions of eyeballs around the world and sell that attention to advertisers.
All this leaves a void in the middle – the space of forums, ad hoc group formation, and small communities that first sparked excitement around internet adoption in the pre-Facebook era.
- Facebook’s removal of its own social network could open up a new space for innovation in this territory, where newcomers like Discord are already beginning to thrive.