The Fall of Facebook

Ed Zitron 7 min read
The Fall of Facebook

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg was flayed by the media for his grim fears around the current financial climate, including but not limited to telling employees that special “meta days” they got through the pandemic were done, and that some of them would be “self-selected” for firing. Meanwhile, Instagram is suffering from a problem where you see seemingly random videos from their algorithm instead of the people you’re friends with. Instagram head Adam Mosseri rushed to try and explain why this was happening - to be clear, the actual reason is “we want TiKTok’s money” - claiming that the platform will be “more video-focused over time,” as that’s what people are liking and sharing.

To translate from Corpo-speak, Facebook/Meta/MakeMyNudesFight.Com is in a bind. After making billions of dollars making people so angry at each other that we now have entire political parties driven by conspiracy theories, it has become obvious that Mark Zuckerberg is neither an innovator nor an operator. I’ve said before that he was outright lying about what his company could do in the metaverse. Now, not only is Meta’s growth declining for the first time in history, but their metaverse/VR department Reality Labs lost $2.8 billion in one quarter.

Anecdotally, absolutely nobody I know enjoys using a single Meta product, other than perhaps Oculus, and even then, I can’t remember when I last heard of somebody using it. Facebook itself is a pallid, empty product, constantly trying to trick you into clicking an ad for one of 490 direct-to-consumer t-shirt brands that interrupt my feed of the nine people I can only find on Facebook. Instagram is an endless flume of sponsored content and “suggested” posts that get in the way of seeing what your actual friends are posting. In both cases, it’s not obvious which of your posts make it to your friends’ (or fans’) pages. The response from Zuckerberg? Meta is going to double down on showing you shit you don’t want to see:

Meta - I guess I’ll call it that now - is somehow in worse condition than during the Cambridge Analytica scandal because at least then they had a product, but it’s obvious that this was the beginning of the end for a company that has struggled to find an ethical (or sustainable) way of making money. Changing the name to Meta was meant to be a fresh start - a chance to make the company seem futuristic - except they continued to make money in the same frustrating and anti-user way they always have - letting the algorithm cram stuff down your throat in the hopes you’ll click an advertisement. It would be charitable to say that Zuckerberg is out of ideas because it suggests that he had any, rather than oscillating between what company he had to copy or acquire in any given week to stay remotely competitive.

And that’s what is killing Meta, Facebook, and Instagram - a constant focus on trying to find ways to trick users into engaging with products rather than giving them a reason to. Oculus may be the only product in Meta’s stable that resembles a product rather than layers of algorithms and advertisements wrapped in the least consumer-friendly experience that they can get away with. In the 15 or so years I’ve used the platform, it has never given me a reason to do anything new beyond, perhaps, using Facebook messenger - it is the same product, and every time it attempts to turn itself into something else, the experience is painful.

While people joke about Twitter being “the hell site,” people genuinely love being on there, and it’s in large part because I believe it’s captured the early Facebook “what’re you up to?” feeling but broadened to capture people you know but aren’t friends with, or people you don’t know but want to keep up with. Twitter is the human RSS feed, a snapshot of any given moment’s multitudes of reactions, and it makes money by shoving sponsored posts in sometimes but not so much you want to close it entirely.

Instagram - probably the smartest acquisition in Meta’s history - has lost its way because it is no longer about your friends or those you care about. It is no longer a collection of what people want you to know about or want to remember themselves, nor is it about getting a brief, intimate peek into people’s lives - it is, much like Facebook, a constant game of trying to trick the algorithm into showing your posts to everybody that follows you.

Instagram, of course, blames the user:

Except this is a self-fulfilling prophecy - a situation where people are consuming what is being pushed to them by people that are being pushed to make the content that Meta wants to show their followers. Meta is juicing their metrics to push people toward video on all platforms and then claiming that video is the future, something that history has proven they have been wrong about to the point that they killed several journalistic enterprises. Their only real metric for this being successful is that TikTok is successful, which can be attributed to the fact that they appear to be good at providing users with stuff they want to see.

One of Meta’s many problems is that they simply do not have an attractive product in their roster. I don’t know a single person who loves using Facebook, and the people I know who like Instagram still complain about it regularly. TikTok has been a success because of its demonic algorithm and relentless pace of content - an endless feed that took the idea behind Twitter’s failed “Vine” service and layered on slick video-editing tools to make anybody able to participate in what’s happening.

In short, they managed to create Video Twitter, and video does actually lend itself to algorithms. Twitter isn’t something you go on to “check in” on your friends - it’s a place where you go to consume content and see who’s mad at who today. TikTok is much the same, and when you don’t like something it’s very quick and easy to find something else. Conversely, Instagram and Facebook are places you go for something a little more specific - an idea of what a friend is up to, a chance to see where your favorite band is touring, and so on - and Meta is steadfastly dedicated to taking away the literal reason most people use these platforms.

My question is quite simple: who, exactly, does Meta think Instagram and Facebook are for? If it’s for businesses or brands, the platform regularly doesn’t show your content to everybody who you’d want to see it. If it’s for you and your friends, it feels like dumpster diving - a continual slog through content you don’t want to get to things you only sort-of-want to see. There is no joy in going viral on Instagram or Facebook unless you have a monetary interest. When something big happens, there is little gravitational pull to these platforms like there is for Twitter or TikTok. There are no great Meta products - there are only ad networks and shadowy algorithms that feel like you’re playing the cup game, except you’re not sure what’s under the cup and sometimes it’s an ad for “the greatest socks ever made.”

Zuckerberg is a boring, lifeless goon, a man so wealthy and disconnected from society that he has no ability to discern what a human being feels, let alone what might make them feel it. While Twitter might raise bile in some people (with good reason), Facebook and Instagram rarely elicit much emotion at all, other than perhaps a nostalgia for the time when these products operated in a way that users wanted them to.

When something big happens, I am excited to see what’s up on Twitter - if I didn’t find out on there first - and I believe the same thing happens on TikTok. I have not heard of someone rushing to see what is happening on a single Meta product since 2009, and they all feel like a member of your family you tolerate because you have to, otherwise the three cousins you like won’t speak to you anymore. When people think of Facebook, they think of manipulating and angering people, or outright screwing over news publishers.

Meta’s platforms have become so utterly disconnected from the reasons that they were originally successful that I am not confident that their management will be able to stop the bleed. I’m not suggesting they will die, but Facebook’s (and to a lesser extent Instagram’s) dominance is going to dwindle dramatically. This is in large part due to Meta’s inability to understand actual human beings - while TikTok’s algorithm is malevolent in a way I can’t put my finger on, it feels like it shows you things you want to see - is their downfall, which is why they are seemingly in a constant state of damage control trying to make their users feel less angry rather than happy.

Despite Meta’s massive war chest and hordes of tech talent, they are bereft of vision or meaningful creative force. They do not seek ways to make users do the things they love more - they look for ways to manipulate them into ways that make Meta money, offering nothing in exchange other than the vague suggestion that leaving this platform would upset their friends, or abandon their fans. Meta is a knock-off company incapable or unwilling to double down on the things that people like because the numbers don’t immediately jump upwards.

Meta is an ugly, boring company, selling people products they at best sort-of-kind-of-want in a way that they hate. If Zuckerberg had any sense, he would step down and hand the reins over to somebody younger, hungrier and more creative. He’d shut down Reality Labs and admit the Meta thing was a huge, stupid mistake, perhaps spinning out Oculus again. Whatever nebulous growth metrics suggest this company is a suggest fail to evaluate exactly how lifeless it is and how far it has strayed from making products that people actually enjoy.

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