Social networking as we know it is probably on its way out. It used to be a big draw for all kinds of people, and at the same time an incredible way to harvest personal data that could be used to target ads.
But everything is temporary on the Internet. TikTok has created an app that’s more addictive than anything before it. For many people, it’s the most fun thing you can do on a smartphone. And Meta, whose apps have topped the App Store charts for years, knows it. Meta therefore created a fake TikTok video called Reels. And it announced last week that it was turning its flagship Facebook app into a kind of video app.
The Facebook app now opens to a Home tab containing the Reels videos (changes will come to the desktop app later, according to Facebook). If you want to catch your old high school friend’s latest post or hide on your ex’s pages, you’ll need to open a different tab now, the “Stream” tab. This is where the social networking functions are, a kind of side attraction. (Users can like or comment on short videos, but that’s more for entertainment than socializing.)
Axios Technology editor Scott Rosenberg put it this way in a Monday post: “Mark the past week as the end of the social media era, which began with the rise of Friendster in 2003, has shaped two decades of internet growth, and is now ending with Facebook rolling out a sweeping TikTok-like overhaul.
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 will go away and be abandoned.
For a very long time, these characteristics were the main attraction. It was the catnip that kept users coming and staying (and watching ads and leaving behind crumbs of their own personal data). During its formative years, Mark Zuckerberg’s company offered a social network, a version of MySpace that was neat and well-organized. And above all, everyone was there! It offered users a way to track friends’ vacations and loved ones’ newborn photos, and the fun of having their own posts liked and commented on. It was about connecting with friends and family.
Until that is no longer the case. In 2015, users’ feeds were filled with content from complete strangers. They saw advertisements, news article links, and group posts, all carefully targeted by user preferences, browsing habits, demographics, political and religious beliefs, and dozens of other signals. . This allowed legitimate advertisers to reach finely segmented audiences with their message at reasonable prices.
But bad actors, domestic and foreign, have learned to exploit and weaponize the algorithm. They did so with great success in the 2016 election cycle, placing anonymous ads designed to stoke social unrest, racial prejudice, political resentment, and degrade trust in American institutions, including the electoral system. Dividing content and misinformation (i.e. fake news) often drive the most engagement. Regardless that much of the controversial content was posted by strangers, it had the effect of driving very personal rifts between friends and families, ultimately alienating many users.
By the end of the 2016 election, Facebook had moved away from the “friends and family” social network it once was. Many people have blamed the company for inadvertently helping Donald Trump win office. It didn’t help that Facebook also allowed the personal social data of millions of its users to end up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a political data science group hired by the Trump campaign. During the fallout from these events, Zuckerberg repeatedly tried to drag Facebook back to more meaningful “friends and family” social networks. He wrote in a January 2018 post that Facebook users would soon start seeing more “meaningful content.” He wrote: “The first changes you’ll 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,” the CEO said. “. . . the private parts of our social network will be more important than our digital public squares.
Zuckerberg’s “digital city square” was and is a failure. It is not a platform for public discussion and reconciliation. There remains a closed-filter bubble platform. The “private” parts of the network are more useful, perhaps, but not as profitable.
Now, the most important algorithm on Facebook is what it calls the “recommendation engine.” It’s Facebook’s version of the TikTok recommendation engine, which reads users’ video viewing and liking habits to suggest the next video and the next and the next.
Broadcasting videos produced by complete strangers is most likely the future of Facebook. For most of its history, the company’s model enticed users with a free social network and then sucked up their personal data for ad targeting. When the appeal of the free social network wanes, something has to take its place. These happen to be 30-second videos of people scaring their cats.