From The Economist:
“I’m a little intoxicated, not gonna lie. So what if it’s not even 10pm and it’s a Tuesday night?…Let the hacking begin.” So typed a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, liveblogging from his Harvard dormitory as he began work on a website called Facemash. The site displayed randomly selected pairs of students’ mugshots, harvested from the university’s intranet, and allowed users to vote on who was hotter. It caused a stir and was promptly shut down. But before long, a successor was in the making. On February 4th 2004 Mr Zuckerberg launched a new site: TheFacebook.com.
Facebook, as it later became, quickly overtook established social networks such as Friendster and MySpace to become the world’s largest, a position it still holds on its 20th birthday. Today 3bn people—about 60% of all internet users—scroll its infinite feed every month (see chart 1). It has outwitted its rivals, or swallowed them, as it did Instagram and WhatsApp. Six of the ten most-downloaded mobile apps last year belonged to Meta, Facebook’s holding company, which is now the world’s largest seller of advertising after Google. Meta’s market value has surpassed $1trn; in the third quarter of last year it reported revenue of $34bn.
Facebook and its imitators have done more than make money. Social media have become the main way that people experience the internet—and a substantial part of how they experience life. Last year nearly half of mobile screen-time worldwide was spent on social apps (and more than a quarter of waking hours were spent on phones), according to Data.ai, a research company. The networks have become what Mr Zuckerberg and others call a digital “town square”, in which the arguments of the day are thrashed out and public opinion is shaped. Social media have fomented social movements, from #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter to the Arab spring and the Capitol riot.
Now, after two decades of evolution, the town square is being dug up and rebuilt. Following the arrival of competitors such as TikTok, powered by artificial intelligence, Facebook and other incumbents have been forced to reinvent themselves. Platforms that began as places for friends to interact and share their own content are turning into television-like feeds of entertainment, for passive consumption. At the same time, users are moving their conversations and arguments off the open networks and into closed, private groups on platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. That migration, in turn, will have big implications for politics, in a year when countries with more than half the world’s population are heading to the polls.
Social media are more popular than ever. The average internet user spent nearly two and a half hours a day on social platforms last year, according to gwi, another data company. Usage ticked up during the pandemic and has not returned to pre-covid levels. As more people go online, more are signing up. Total time spent using social apps on Android devices, which account for about 70% of the world’s phones and tablets, has risen by 42% since 2020, to 2.3trn hours last year, according to Data.ai.
But the sort of social networking that Facebook pioneered is disappearing. The most obvious change is the shift to video on today’s networks. The explosive success of TikTok, a Chinese-owned short-video app which launched in 2017 and quickly had young people hooked, has sparked a wave of copycats. Meta has added a video feature called Reels to Facebook and Instagram. Similar products have been bolted onto Pinterest (Watch), Snapchat (Spotlight) and YouTube (Shorts). Elon Musk, who bought Twitter in 2022 and renamed it X, now claims it is a “video-first” platform. Of the 64 minutes per day that the average American spent on social media last year, 40 were spent watching video, up from 28 minutes three years earlier, estimates Bernstein, a broker.
The bigger change to social feeds is under the bonnet. At first, social networks showed chronological updates from users’ contacts: their friend just got engaged, their uncle was storming the Capitol and so on. As the volume of posts grew, the networks employed algorithms to prioritise posts that had proved popular among the user’s friends. Now a new phase has begun. TikTok decided that, rather than guessing what people would like based on their “social graph”—that is, what their family and friends liked—it would use their “interest graph”, which it inferred from the videos they and people like them lingered on. And rather than show content created by people they followed, it would serve up anything it thought they might like.
Every other big platform has followed suit. In 2022 Mr Zuckerberg announced that Facebook’s feed would become a “discovery engine” to seek out engaging content from around the internet. Since last year half of the posts X shows its users come from outside the network of people they follow. Threads, Meta’s Twitter-clone, launched last year with a similar approach. The resulting feeds of unrelated content from strangers can be jarring: “Here’s a healthy breakfast option! You should kill your mom!” quipped Bo Burnham, a YouTube comedian, in a satirical song. But users seem to like it. Time spent on Instagram has risen by 40% since Meta launched Reels. Even the geriatric Facebook somehow added 5m new users in America and Canada last year.
As users’ newsfeeds become unmoored from their network of friends and family, they are posting less about themselves. “The average user is now more of a consumer,” says Michael Bossetta of Lund University. In a survey last year by Gartner, a market-research company, only 28% of Americans said they liked documenting their life online, down from 40% in 2020. Some 61% say they have become more selective about what they post, finds Morning Consult, another research firm, which speculates that an influx of “influencer” content may have made users think “their everyday life is too mundane to justify frequent posts”. Video, the new format of choice, is harder to create than dashing off a quick status update. And some platforms, such as X, prioritise posts by users who pay, reducing incentives for the rest.
Instead, conversations have been moving for some time to private groups. In 2021 Mr Zuckerberg wrote that, as well as debating in the “town square” of Facebook and Instagram, “People increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.” Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, said last year that more photos and videos were being shared in direct messages than on the app’s main feed. “All the friends-sharing is moving in that direction,” he concluded. Morning Consult asked people how they would be most likely to recommend a movie. Only 30% said they would post on social media, behind the 43% who chose text or email and the 35% who opted for group chats.
At the same time, in the digital town square, fun is in and politics is out. Although (and perhaps because) social networks are accused of driving political polarisation, they seem increasingly eager to steer users away from news and current affairs. A study by Joshua Tucker of the Centre for Social Media and Politics at New York University (NYU) and colleagues compared a group of Facebook and Instagram users who were on chronological newsfeeds in the run-up to America’s election in 2020 with another group who used the platforms’ recommendation algorithm. Those using the chronological feed saw 15% more political content on Facebook and 5% more on Instagram than those who were fed by the algorithm. (They also saw a lot more information from what Meta classified as untrustworthy sources: 69% more on Facebook and 22% more on Instagram, albeit from low bases.)
Since then, the platforms have shied even further from news. The u-turn has been sharpest at Meta, whose boss said ten years ago that he wanted Facebook’s newsfeed to be a “perfect personalised newspaper for every person in the world”. The firm now says that news makes up less than 3% of what people see on the platform. Mr Mosseri, who is also in charge of Threads, wrote at its launch last year, “Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads…but we’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals.” A week later he added, “From a platform’s perspective, any incremental engagement or revenue they might drive is not at all worth the scrutiny, negativity (let’s be honest), or integrity risks that come along with them.”
A campaign by some publishers to make social-media firms pay to share their content has reinforced the networks’ view that news is more trouble than it is worth.
Link to the rest at The Economist
PG tried to remember when he had last read about a literary agent recommending that every author should be on Facebook. He thinks it was last week.
His own experiences with the new Facebook have convinced him that it’s really not that simple for an author to have an effective Facebook destination without, perhaps, hiring a Facebook marketing expert. That said, PG wouldn’t advise any new graduate to become a Facebook marketing expert.
The place has changed by much more than just rebranding to Meta. It’s laid off lots and lots of skilled employees, is facing serious technical, legal, ethical, and social issues. and, for PG has lost at its moorings and started drifting into strange places he finds offputting.