30 Nov 2016
When Facebook first appeared on the scene, the dominant force was MySpace. MySpace was a hot mess. There was something refreshing about Facebook - it was clean, simple, fast. You could always find the person you were looking for by their real name. All while taking the personality and expression out of social networking. Everyone was reduced to a single blue-grey page with a few photos. No more auto-playing death metal when you visited somebody's profile, or hot pink flashing text and sparkles. No more Comic Sans.
At the time, Facebook was useful, as a place to share photos and keep in contact with people even as they dropped their phones in the toilet.
Now, Facebook has overstayed its welcome in our subconscious. Everyone knows somebody who wants to or has quit Facebook. How did we get to the point where a service is now harming people, yet they struggle to leave it? Isn't that the very definition of an abusive relationship?
It all started with engagement. The metric that internet companies crave. It's the modern equivalent of 'eyeballs' from the internet bubble of the nineties. Engagement is typically calculated from metrics such as the number of posts you've liked, videos watched, time spent scrolling through the news feed. Management types love it. It gives a supposedly objective view across users of how engaged they are with your app, and you can make nice charts showing upward trajectories.
The drive for revenue has led to a drive to optimise 'user engagement'. The more engagement, the more ad revenue, so the theory goes. But this endless race to squeeze every ounce of engagement has left users exhausted. The problem is that engagement does not equal satisfaction.
The news feed was the big turning point. It was through this feed that Facebook exploited our biggest human insecurities and the fear of missing out, whether intentionally or not. By definition, the news feed shows the highlight reel of our lives. The most liked - engaging - posts bubble to the top and quietly whisper, "What are you doing with your life?".
As reward driven creatures we're more susceptible to craving that 'quick hit' than we'd like to think. Through engagement testing, we as users have taught social networks how to push our buttons, and play games with our minds to keep us engaged. Have you noticed when pressing the "New Posts" button that randomly appears at the top of the feed, the posts are often hours old? It's a sleight of hand that fools us into thinking something interesting has happened, and if you don't catch it now you might miss it. It could be the difference between putting your phone down and scrolling for another hour.
Facebook wanted to be the social hub of the internet, the place where everybody would express their identity online. They were to connect the world, make it easier to communicate across borders. Instead, in the pursuit of revenue, their business transitioned to capturing and keeping the attention of the world, long enough to show relevant advertising. That's controversial enough, without even touching on the issues of privacy and data ownership that have plagued Facebook.
A dystopian future where we're permanently wired in to our smartphones might seem to be just over the horizon. I have faith that society will resist this, in the same way we keep other addictions at arms length, like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.
Despite Facebook's meteoric rise in user numbers, I'd hazard a guess that the number of people who enjoy using Facebook is decreasing. If something doesn't change, the company will start losing its best users to apps that don't care to occupy your brain. Facebook is so ubiquitous it's now considered a necessary evil in modern society, making the company overconfident and careless, and making Facebook ripe for replacement.
Photo by Matthew Henry