Last week I asked what Facebook really is: an outlet for entertainment and escapism or an informational platform for expanding our horizons by discovering and discussing news and information about the world around us? Last night Facebook resoundingly answered that it viewed itself as the former: a place to connect and most importantly to converse with our friends and family, with news coverage and other commercial content scheduled to be heavily deemphasized this year on the platform. What does this mean for the future of Facebook and is it all really just an audience access fee or creation of a Utopian walled garden to escape troubling times?
Facebook’s changes have been portrayed as the beginning of the end for commercial content on Facebook, that in future, posts by brands and media outlets will be washed away in the deluge of our conversations with friends and families. However, most telling is that it appears that paid posts by brands and news outlets will not be similarly affected and, of course, advertisements will continue to appear as always.
In short, companies can still pay to promote their content on Facebook and have it appear in News Feeds and other prominent places in the site. Those willing to pay an access fee will not see any change in their placement. It is only unpaid free distribution that is being curtailed.
Brands have to date largely enjoyed a free ride – if you have a creative enough marketing team, you can get your content in front of tens of millions of people without paying a penny to Facebook for the right to access its audience. Virality was free and two billion people were within reach of anything you posted if you could find a quick novel hook and get it in front of the right people.
Facebook’s changes merely end this free ride, placing publishers on notice that moving forward they will have to pay for access to Facebook’s audience. Far from a sweeping change, Facebook’s adjustment of its News Feed is merely the access fee that many of us have been warning publishers about for years. It is simply the age-old startup strategy in action: offer something for free, get people hooked, then start charging and keep raising the prices and steadily ramping down the features of the free tier. From Facebook’s standpoint, why should a publisher be able to reach two billion people without paying for the right to do so?
Indeed, Facebook’s actions are a stark reminder that its walled garden is private property and that brands are guests in a world over which they have little control.
By charging brands for the right to access its audience, Facebook not only gains a new revenue source, but also by its nature forces them to focus on quality over quantity. Today’s free ecosystem rewards brands that pour massive volumes of low-quality content out in the hope that at least one piece of content goes viral or that collectively they gain enough eyeballs to make it worthwhile. In short, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. When brands must pay real money to have their content seen, they will likely rethink their workflows and focus on a smaller number of higher quality pieces designed to promote discussion and engagement.
In essence, Facebook’s changes are a win-win: brands produce a lower volume of higher quality content and Facebook gains a new revenue stream as brands have to pay to reach an audience.
At the same time, Facebook’s changes also help insulate it further from the risk of competition, by culling the deluge of commercial content that is typically replicated by brands across multiple platforms. Users don’t come to Facebook for the primary purpose of consuming commercial content from brands that they can get on all the other social media platforms too. If Facebook became overrun with non-exclusive commercial content and basically just became a giant ads site, not only would users likely decrease their visits, but more importantly, competitors could pop up that offer the same content. Facebook’s unique value lies in its privately-owned network of 2 billion users that can produce content that people have to come to Facebook to consume. If everything on Facebook was also available on every other platform, Facebook would be vulnerable to competition. Today it is hard for a startup to even imagine competing with Facebook because of that massive archive of user-generated unique content and connections. Facebook’s proposed solution to cull commercial content and get its users producing more unique content that it owns is a perfect solution to making itself more valuable.
Ironically, despite being on the defensive over the past year over “fake news,” filter bubbles and foreign influence operations on its platform, Facebook’s changes could actually make them worse. Isolating users back into their self-selected personal walled gardens of friends and families will only reinforce the echo chambers that already deprive us of forcible exposure to opposing views. Our digital worlds will continue to shrink to match our physical ones, with the utopian dream of the web as a place to expand our understanding of the world collapsing into a reinforcing realm of agreeable comfort.
Mark Zuckerberg’s post last night says it all: “I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.” While many over the years had argued Facebook would replace search engines as the way we interact with the informational world, Zuckerberg appears to be pushing back against that characterization and use of the platform he built, envisioning it as more a giant chat site than something more integral that brings information to us. To be sure, social collaborative search, such as asking for recommendations from friends or seeing links they are sharing and discussing will continue to play this role, but the notion of using all of these signals to expand our informational horizons appears to be something Facebook is less interested in pursuing.
Instead, Facebook will be emphasizing “posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” Facebook aptly titled its announcement “Bringing People Closer Together.” From its infamous 2014 study manipulating its users’ emotions to last year’s pilot discussion to allow emotional targeting of ads with a specific emphasis on selling ads targeting young children undergoing emotional crises, Facebook has shown an outsized interest in commercially leveraging the emotional state of its two billion users.
Could one driving force of Facebook’s new initiative be that in troubling times, walling us ever further off from the outside world and wrapping us in the comforting blanket of those who think like us will lead to a happier user community? In short, that reinforcing our natural filter bubbles, rather than trying to burst them, will make users happier and more interested in spending more time on Facebook? To put it another way, if Facebook focused on expanding our horizons, connecting us to people, organizations and especially information that was very different from our own views and interests, people would simply tune out. By offering us an escape from reality in which we can seek refuge and shelter from the troubling world, Facebook reinforces itself as a platform for escapism rather than enlightenment and positions itself as the place we go to get away from it all.
Its worth pointing out how far we’ve come in our views towards what brings us closer together with our friends and family. As the photograph at the top of this article poignantly captures, it was just over a decade ago that Facebook’s rollout of its new News Feed led to an angry backlash that described the new live updates as “too creepy, too stalker-esque” and that “very few of us want everyone automatically knowing what we update … we want just a LITTLE [sic] bit of privacy, even if it is Facebook.” Major tech press at the time lauded the new feature as a sacrifice by Facebook that would significantly reduce page views, but would make for happier users: “I also applaud Facebook for launching a product clearly designed to reduce total page views in the network by no longer forcing users to go to their friends pages for updates. That shows serious long term vision and dedication to the principle of facilitating communication among its users.” A decade later we believe that our friends and family being alerted in realtime to every thing we say and do on the platform will bring us ever closer together as a society.
The company did not respond to a request for comment on any of these issues.
Putting this all together, Facebook’s latest changes are precisely what many of us had been warning for years: Facebook is finally starting to charge brands an access fee for the right to step foot in its walled garden and speak to its audience of two billion people. At the same time, bringing its users closer together will only reinforce filter bubbles and lead to a more isolated society that escapes to a digital world where they can be surrounded by those like themselves, walling ourselves ever further off from the chaotic world in which we live.