The decline of the social network


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Mark last week as the end of an era of social media that began with Friendster in 2003, shaped two decades of Internet growth, and now culminates in Facebook’s rollout of a massive TikTok-like redesign.

Big picture: In a social networking model that used the rise of smartphones to shape the digital experience of billions of users, keeping track of your friends’ messages served as the hub of everything you could do online.

Now Facebook wants to shape your online life based on the algorithmically sorted preferences of millions of strangers around the world.

  • This is how TikTok sorts the videos it shows users, and this is how Facebook will now organize its home screen.
  • The dominant social media player is transforming into a kind of digital media where machine learning-driven reactions from hordes of anonymous users determine your content choices.

Facebook and its competitors call it a “discovery engine” because it reliably recommends posts from anywhere that might grab your attention.

  • But it’s also very much like a mutant TV, with an infinite number of context-independent channels that flicker and lose focus at high speed.
  • It’s what younger users are now preferring, and it’s where Facebook expects its business to grow, now that Apple’s new privacy rules and threats from regulators around the world have made its existing ad targeting model unreliable.

Between lines: For about a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, social media—led by Facebook, with Twitter playing an important secondary role—dominated the culture and economy of the Internet.

  • Their ascent was accompanied by great hopes that they could unleash democratic forces and free expression throughout the world.
  • But their main impact has been in the transformation of the media industry and the digital advertising business.

Facebook overtakes competitor MySpace and swallowed up or outmaneuvered rivals like Instagram and Snapchat, turning a simple “social graph” of human relationships into a money-making machine that helped businesses, especially smaller companies, target cheap ads with uncanny accuracy.

  • Rivals have tried and failed to beat Facebook in the social media game – Google first and foremost, with numerous forgotten attempts from Orkut to Google+.

Yes, but: As profits soared and Facebook entered the exclusive club of big tech giants along with Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, so did the problems.

  • Facebook friend counts and like buttons have turned human relationships into a contest of impersonal metrics.
  • Keeping up with post volume has become a chore, which is why since 2009 Facebook’s News Feed has defaulted to algorithmic rather than chronological sorting.
  • This prompted many users, especially political organizations, to turn up the volume and try to spoof the Facebook program.
  • Over time, critics argue, this dynamic has become the driving force behind extremism, disinformation, hate speech and harassment.

To be smart: The TikTok-style “discovery engine” model has many of the same problems.

  • Posts are even less rooted in the web of social relationships.
  • The larger the crowd, the higher the threshold for hearing speech.

Mark: As changes are made – quickly on mobile apps, “later this year” for desktop/browser users – Facebook will continue to provide the old-school network of friends and family through the companion tab. These posts will be ordered chronologically, as some users have long wanted.

  • The move also helps Facebook avoid accusations of sorting bias and puts the company ahead of regulators that threaten to restrict its algorithms.

But the era in which social networks served as the main experience of most users on the Internet is moving away from us. This also applies to Twitter, Facebook’s main surviving Western rival.

  • Twitter never found a viable business model, which opened the door for Elon Musk’s takeover bid. Whatever the outcome of the legal battle, Twitter’s future is bleak at best.

Our thought bubble: The leadership of Meta and Facebook now treats the entire Facebook social networking machine as a legacy operation.

What’s next: Messaging will continue to evolve as a central channel for private communication, one-on-one communication, and small group communication.

  • Meta also owns a significant share of this market thanks to Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
  • At the other end of the media spectrum, the “discovery engines” run by TikTok and Meta will battle streaming services to grab billions of eyeballs around the world and sell that attention to advertisers.

All this leaves a vacuum in the middle is the space of forums, the creation of ad hoc groups and small communities that first sparked the buzz around the adoption of the Internet in the pre-Facebook era.

  • Facebook’s shutdown of its own social network could open up new space for innovation in this territory, where relative newcomers like Discord are already starting to thrive.

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