We're Watching Facebook Die

Edward Zitron 16 min read

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In the first quarter of 2024, Meta made $36.45 billion dollars - $12.37 billion dollars of which was pure profit. Though the company no longer reports daily active users, it now uses another metric: “family daily active people.” This number refers to “registered and logged-in users of one or more of Facebook’s Family products who visited at least one of these products on a particular day.” 

This quiet, seemingly innocent change to how Meta reports growth is significant insofar as it will no longer have to report its Daily Active or Monthly active users, meaning that the only source of truth in Meta’s growth story is a vague growth metric that could be manipulated to mean just about anything. Three billion “daily active people” across Meta’s “family” combines WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Facebook Messenger (which I’m confident it counts separately), Oculus, and Threads.  

What’s confusing is that in its Q4 2023 earnings, Meta reported it had 2.11 billion daily active users across its properties — a number that is somehow distinct from the 3.19 billion “family daily active people” that it reported in the same earnings. Daily Active Users is a simple metric — how many people have engaged with a product in a given day — but Daily Family Daily Active People is a number that is somehow so distinct that it’s a billion users higher.

When a company starts playing weird games with how it reports user activity, something is going very, very wrong. In general, when a company starts trying to obfuscate the true numbers about its revenue, growth, or profit, it’s a bad sign. Enron is the best example of this, with the company notorious for using esoteric metrics in its quarterly financial statements to disguise the fact that it was over-leveraged, dysfunctional, and hemorrhaging money at a prodigious level. While I don’t really want to draw comparisons between Meta and Enron, there’s an undeniable truth in the adage that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Healthy, stable, functional companies don’t feel the need to create new, novel metrics. They just don’t.  

I digress. In its Q4 2023 earnings, Facebook claimed to have 3.07 billion active users, up from 3.05 billion monthly active users in Q3 2023, which was up from 3.03 billion monthly-active-users in Q2, which was up from 2.99 billion monthly-active-users in Q1. That is, across the space of a year, a net increase of 80 million monthly active users. This was, of course, an improvement from 2022, where Meta only gained 20 million monthly active users between the first and fourth quarters. 

Between Q1 2021 to Q4 2023 — the last quarter that Meta reported these numbers — Meta would increase its daily active users by 230 million, and its monthly active users by 220 million. That’s a growth rate of just under 11% in daily actives, and just over a 7% increase in monthly actives in three years. 

In that time period, Meta launched its “Horizon” Metaverse and its Twitter competitor Threads, which it claimed in its Q4 earnings had hit 130 million monthly active users, an increase of 30 million from Q3 2023. Yet between Q3 and Q4 2023, Meta’s overall monthly active users only increased by around 20 million — heavily suggesting that despite adding over 100 million new monthly active users in one property, it’s shedding tens of millions of users elsewhere.

Meta’s entire product strategy revolves around the growth of arbitrary metrics — time spent on app, engagement, “meaningful time spent,” all numbers that have dictated strategy across the multitude of Meta properties like Facebook and Instagram. And thanks to its scurrilous growth tactics and sheer force of capital, Meta has grown a seemingly-unstoppable monopoly on social networking, controlling two major platforms (Instagram and Facebook) and two prevalent messaging services (WhatsApp and Messenger).

Yet Meta has become a company that shows utter contempt for its users, turning products like Facebook and Insagram into algorithmic nightmares that undermine their core purpose, namely connecting people, while intentionally allowing malignant actors like anti-vaxers and spammers to thrive so that the numbers behind these arbitrary metrics goes up. 

Mark Zuckerberg lied to investors when he told them that his company “[doesn’t] build services to make money [but makes] money to build better services, because for over a decade, Meta has allowed the services it’s built to decay while actively monetizing the frustration, pain and confusion created by the horrifying state of Facebook and Instagram. 

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When you look at Instagram or Facebook, I want you to try and think of them less as social networks, and more as a form of anthropological experiment. Every single thing you see on either platform is built or selected to make you spend more time on the app and see more things that Meta wants you to see, be they ads, sponsored content, or suggested groups that you can interact with, thus increasing the amount of your “time spent” on the app, and increasing the amount of “meaningful interactions” you have with content.

I also want you to realize that anything bad that you see on the platform is a symptom of Mark Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to rate-limit or sufficiently moderate the platform. Logically-speaking, one would think that Meta would want you to have a high-quality Facebook experience, pruning content that might be incendiary, spammy, scammy or unhelpful, or at the very least, comes primarily from those within your own network, but when your only concern is growth, content moderation is more of an emergency measure. 

And to be clear, this is part of Meta’s cultural DNA. In an interview with journalist Jeff Horwitz in his book Broken Code, Facebook’s former VP of Ads and Partnerships Brian Bolland said that “building things is way more fun than making things secure and safe…[and] until there’s a regulatory or press fire, you don’t deal with it.” 

Horwitz also cites that Meta engineers’ greatest frustration was that the company “perpetually [needed] something to fail — often fucking spectacularly — to drive interest in fixing it.” Horwitz’s book describes Meta’s approach to moderation as “having a light touch,” considering it “a moral virtue” and that the company “wasn’t failing to supervise what users did — it was neutral.”

As I’ve briefly explained, the logic here is that the more stuff there is on Facebook or Instagram, the more likely you are to run into something you’ll interact with, even if said interaction is genuinely bad. Horwitz notes that in April 2016, Meta analyzed Facebook’s most successful political groups, finding that a third of them “routinely featured content that was racist and conspiracy-minded,” with their growth heavily-driven by Facebook’s “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” features, algorithmic tools that Facebook used to recommend content. The researcher in question added that “sixty-four percent of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools.”

When the researcher took their concerns to Facebook’s “Protect and Care” team, they were told that there was nothing the team could do as “the accounts creating the content were real people, and Facebook intentionally had no rules mandating truth, balance or good faith.”

Meta, at its core, is a rot economy empire, entirely engineered to grow metrics and revenue at the expense of anything else. In practice, this means allowing almost any activity that might “grow” the platform, even if it means groups that balloon by tens or hundreds of thousands of people a day, or allowing people to friend 50 or more people in a single day. It means allowing almost any content other than that which it’s legally required to police like mutilation and child pornography, even if the content it allows in makes the platform significantly worse. 

As a result, Meta is kind of like an absentee parent, occasionally looking up from their phone and muttering “don’t do that” when something obviously awful happens, and even then they’re extremely hesitant to intervene. 

This is why, when you log onto Facebook, you can find multiple groups called something like “Facebook Complaints,” each with thousands of members that believe they’re talking to Facebook customer support but really engaging with obvious scammers asking them to take the conversation to Facebook messenger. 

These groups are a stark example of both Meta’s total lack of platform quality control and its total contempt for users. Typing “Facebook complaint” into the search bar on the Facebook app should, if Meta gave a shit, direct you to Facebook’s customer service department — if one really existed, which it doesn’t, but we’ll get to that later — but instead introduces you to multiple 5000+ member honeytraps for scam artists. Meta doesn’t get rid of them, I imagine, because these groups have relatively high activity, boosting Facebook’s “meaningful interactions,” even if said interactions are “a 75-year-old is being conned into sharing their username and password via Facebook Messenger” or “an irate Australian claims that hackers have changed his Facebook to Chinese.” 

Like most social networks, Meta has a black box approach to customer service, meaning that when you submit a complaint or problem through regular channels, you’ll rarely if ever get a substantive response or assistance. What makes Meta unique is that it actively monetizes the problem. In March 2023, Meta launched Paid Verification, charging users $15 a month to get a verified badge on their account, exclusive stickers, as well as — and I quote — “direct access to customer support.” 

As shameless as this is, it’s also profoundly unimaginative. As I’ve argued extensively in the past, both on my podcast and in this newsletter, Zuckerberg is a man bereft of ideas. Meta is a company bereft of ideas. Stealing Twitter’s disastrous pivot to paid verification — which, in its first few moments, backfired spectacularly on Musk, allowing pranksters to impersonate multi-billion pharmaceutical multinationals and wipe billions from their market value — is indicative of Meta's willingness to scrape the bottom of the barrel until it’s tunneled through to the periphery of the Earth’s crust. But, again, I digress. 

For Meta, any group is an opportunity for engagement, any content is an opportunity for engagement, and any action taken on the platform is a meaningful one. Anything that keeps a person engaged with Instagram or Facebook — even if that thing is bad for the user — is a good thing, and that mentality pervades the entirety of this fetid company. To quote Facebook VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth in a memo from 2016, “anything that allows [Meta] to connect more people more often is de facto good,” and “all the work we do in growth is justified,” including “questionable contact importing practices,” and “subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends.” 

While Zuckerberg might have claimed that Meta “never believed the ends justify the means,” that didn’t stop him from making Bosworth Meta’s CTO in 2022. Or, for that matter, any number of unpardonable sins.

Meta’s growth-at-all-costs mindset means that both Facebook and Instagram incentivize the creation of more stuff far more than they incentivize any real human connection. As I’ve discussed in the past, both Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms aggressively force sponsored and suggested content on users based on an unknowable amount of data points.

One particularly noxious engagement trick Facebook uses is to show a carousel of “Reels,” short vertical videos, but instead of playing the entire thing, you’re shown a 2-second-long loop of the content in the hopes that you’ll be intrigued enough to click. This kind of design decision is entirely built to create more engagement — Meta could easily just play the videos in their entirety and let you view them — but Facebook is built to please Lord Zuckerberg and his dastardly little numbers game.

Yet by incentivizing as much content and as many interactions as possible rather than curating the experience in any way is slowly killing Facebook. A study out of Stanford and Georgetown University found that AI-generated images have begun to dominate Facebook, garnering hundreds of millions of interactions thanks to Meta’s recommendation algorithms, with one AI-generated image becoming one of the 20-most-viewed pieces of content in Q3 2023. These pages, according to the study, regularly “used clickbait tactics and attempted to direct users to off-platform content farms and low-quality domains…[and] scam pages [that] attempted to sell products that do not exist or to get users to divulge personal details.” 

In essence, Meta’s algorithm is actively monetizing sending users to questionable groups that, according to the study, “used known deceptive practices, such as account theft or takeover, and exhibited suspicious follower growth,” showing them ads throughout the entire experience. 404 Media’s Jason Koebler also analyzed the phenomena, and found that groups were using AI-altered pictures of Simon Cowell to direct people toward a page called “Thoughts” which routinely encouraged people to click through to a spammy website called Planetee, which was, in turn, full of horrible, invasive ads. Koebler also found that Planetee and Thoughts’ dramatic growth began when they started using AI-generated images, and that many other groups were doing the same thing, generating bizarre images like a picture of Jesus made of shrimp or a clearly-AI-generated 121-year-old woman celebrating her birthday

And they’re running absolutely rampant on the platform, all because Meta has no duty toward its users. 404 Media also reported recently that Facebook’s recommendation algorithm is now promoting anime pornography, combining a mixture of AI-generated cartoon porn and plagiarized art to garner tens of thousands of likes, with reporter Jason Koebler mentioning that a user complained they’d been shown nude pictures of Disney princesses and Misty from Pokémon. 

This is particularly grotesque when you realize how many children use the platform. Although Facebook’s relevance has waned with Gen-Z and younger, it’s still a major social media property in this demographic group. A report from 2021 found that 45% of kids under the age of 13 use Facebook daily, and speaks to a larger trend of recklessness within Facebook, going back to when an engineer was fired after raising concerns that Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature allowed “millions of pedophiles to target tens of millions of children,” as revealed by leaked documents.

I guess Meta doesn’t really give a shit as long as the number goes up. It doesn’t matter that Facebook’s algorithm is recommending AI-generated images of mutilated children, garnering hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of engagements, all so that Facebook can serve you ads next to them. It doesn’t matter that Facebook is saturated with engagement bait, much of it created with generative AI, because Meta is able to express that it has  “3 billion or more family daily active people” on the platform, even if that number refers to 3 billion people using products that are collapsing in real time.

Yet Meta’s most confusing addition to the platform is Meta AI, a “free” (and impossible-to-disable) artificial intelligence assistant that lets users ask questions and generate images from virtually any Facebook property. Meta also allows users to add Meta’s AI to their groups, letting commenters ask it questions, and confusingly also enabled their AI to respond to comments that aren’t getting engagement, leading Meta AI to respond to a comment in a parenting group that it had a gifted child, and recommended a specific school for helping with said child’s needs.

This extremely weird addition to the platform doesn’t make sense until you consider that every single decision that Mark Zuckerberg makes is one to keep users on Meta’s platforms. By adding a generative AI assistant, Meta gives users more things to play with, more reasons to interact with the platform, and more ways to generate content to put on the platform, which in turn creates more reasons for others to interact with it. It doesn’t matter that those “things” are useless, harmful, or profoundly intrusive.

Meta’s AI push is yet another senseless way that Mark Zuckerberg is burning money, with the company raising its spending forecast for 2024 to $35 billion to 45 billion dollars, up from $30 billion to $37 billion. Zuckerberg has blown over $40 billion dollars on the metaverse so far, and seems to be intent on doing the same with generative AI, sinking further billions into expensive graphics processing units and other assorted hardware to spin up features that nobody asked for or wanted. Despite claiming 2023 was the “year of efficiency,” this only appeared to refer to the 20,000 or more people that Zuckerberg laid off.

I realize I sound a little dramatic, but I believe that Meta is a deeply evil company run by people that treat human beings as pawns to increase engagement metrics and make money on advertising. What makes the company so unique is that the services it provides are unquestionably awful — using both Facebook and Instagram is a  constant battle with an algorithm to see the people that you chose to follow — and Meta as a company seems incapable of developing anything new, innovative, or even useful. Yet it made over $36 billion in revenue in Q1 2024 — and it did so by abusing and manipulating its users while failing to maintain the integrity and utility of two of the most important platforms on the internet. 

I believe, as crazy as it sounds, that this strategy will lead to the contraction and eventual death of Facebook, and anticipate that as things get difficult for the company, Instagram will begin to decay in a similar way. 

According to data provided to me by Similarweb, in the last three years, Facebook’s US website audience has declined by 13.7%, and in the year-over-year period from April 2023 to 2024, monthly active users on Facebook’s app declined by 2.2%. While Instagram's web audience grew by 23% over the last three years, in the last 12 months its growth has slowed to 6.8% — and between March and April 2024, Instagram’s app monthly active users in America declined by 0.8%.  

Facebook’s monthly active users have been aggressively declining every month, tumbling from a high of 208 million monthly active American users in May 2021 to 161.4 million monthly active users in April 2024 — the second-lowest the number has been in the entire period, beaten only by February 2024, when it had 158.8 million monthly active users. On top of that, year-over-year, Facebook’s app saw a decline of 2.2% in monthly active users. 

To put it simply, Facebook is decaying, losing nearly 50 million monthly active users in the last three years in the US. Globally, things are much worse. Facebook has lost 25.2% of its monthly unique website visitors since 2021, crashing from a high of 1.456 billion in May 2021 to a low of 1.042 billion in February, slightly increasing to 1.059 billion in April 2024 — a loss of 397 million unique visitors. 

One has to wonder if these numbers might have been what pushed Zuckerberg to try and turn the metaverse into the “next generation of the internet” — because he knew, on some level, that his disgraceful, lazy, half-baked, abusive, manipulative and morally deplorable approach to building social networks was one that had a sell-by date. Everything you see on Facebook and Instagram today is a monument to the works of a man that sees users as rats in a digital maze built to make numbers go up and investors happy. 

Society’s mechanisms are far too slow and lack the precision to deal with Mark Zuckerberg — a man that acts with a lack of morality that I find putrid — and the complex machine he's used to torture humans for profit and power. And as I’ve mentioned before, Mark Zuckerberg can never be fired. We’re stuck with him forever. He can — and will — run this company into the ground. 

While Elon musk is a greedy and churlish executive, and a disgusting, shameful man, Mark Zuckerberg is something entirely different. He is far from stupid, and unlike Musk seemingly feels no compulsion for anyone to like him. He craves numerical dominance, at any cost. He must force human beings to use Facebook, and once they are there, he must make them move in the way wishes and do the things he wishes all so that he can see the number go up. He will do whatever he wants, because he built a system so that he could never be fired, giving him unilateral power over a monopoly he designed to chew through people's lives, turning them into further fuel for Meta's money machine. 

What Zuckerberg has done is monstrous, both in its damage to society and its financial opulence. Facebook made so many people rich in so many ways, offered a genuine societal service, and then found every foreseeable way to monetise every corner of our lives. Facebook's culture is one of imprisonment and abuse, trapping users in engagement loops that tangibly harm them, something Facebook is both well aware of and intentionally not seeking to remedy. And ultimately, the software itself of Facebook, which does have value in how it connects so many people in so many ways, is a prisoner of Mark Zuckerberg, who may or may not have stolen the idea in the first place, making it just another piece of data he's extracted through nefarious means. 

At one point, Facebook was a social good — something that contributed to meaningful connections between human beings separated by time and geography. During the Arab Spring, protestors in Cairo held up banners that read, in a mix of English and Arabic, “thank you Facebook.” Similar sentiments were daubed onto the wall near the headquarter’s of Tunisia’s Ministry of the Interior, reflecting its role as a facilitator and a neutral communications network. Facebook even, as leaked emails obtained by the Daily Beast revealed, placed protestor’s pages under “special protection” with a team providing 24/7 monitoring. 

Facebook, at least in this regard, understood its role in a changing world and was prepared to step up to the plate. It refused to bend the knee to the Hosni Mubarak regime, and on January 25 of 2011, was banned by the Egyptian government — two days before it shut down the entire Internet.

Today, it’s an example of everything wrong with the internet — an algorithmic iron maiden that nakedly cons users on a minute-by-minute basis, a parasitic entity that deprives creators of their audiences and users of their industry. It has no principles or backbone, and it’s no longer a reliable tool for connecting people, as it was during the wave of pro-democracy protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Whereas once you could have made a plausible case that Facebook, even if deeply flawed, had at least an ember of morality at its core, that’s no longer a coherent position.

In a just world, this company would be a public utility, not the fixation of a corrupt and morally bankrupt billionaire.  

Mark Zuckerberg is a monster. He is the opposite of what the tech industry should stand for — a monopolist that deliberately makes and proliferates bad software, and makes the world worse for it. Facebook and instagram are insults to every single software engineer in the world, built to trick and swindle and harm rather than providing a service. This man is a disgrace. This company is a disgrace.

The world deserves better than Mark Zuckerberg.  


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