Facebook just turned 20 but what will the next 20 look like?

Buried in the reams of information Facebook holds on me is the fact that I created my profile on 31 March 2007, when the social media network itself was a little more than three years old and yet to hit its 100 million user milestone.

I don’t remember setting up the account itself but I do recall the palpable sense of excitement around Facebook at the time. There were no concerns about privacy, oversharing or being profiled for ads, instead we were excited about the possibilities for connection. Facebook lived up to its designation as a “Social Network” by bringing together school and university friends, colleagues, family, people you queued at a festival bar with for five minutes into a series of interlocking social circles.

It became the main tool for socialising as well, through ‘pokes’ (remember them?), the primitive messaging function, creating event pages or just endless games of Scrabulous. There were no ads, and the only content you saw was from the people or brands you chose to follow. It wasn’t even on our phones. If we met someone out and about whom we wanted to ‘add as a friend’ we’d have to take down their name and add them later from a laptop.

Would anyone looking at today’s Facebook or companion Instagram recognise that utopian description or user experience? Today I have to actively search for anything posted by the few friends or family who still bother, my feed is somewhere between 30% to 50% ads and the rest is posts from For Sale groups and unrelated and unasked for Reels. We used to talk excitedly and incessantly about Facebook, now we just complain about it non-stop.

It can’t be denied that the social network’s evolutionary journey has been successful. According to The Guardian, Facebook now has around three billion users, while its sister apps Instagram and WhatsApp have around two billion each. Meta, the parent company, just announced year-on-year quarterly profits are up US$14bn and that it will pay a dividend for the first time ever, netting founder Mark Zuckerberg a US$700m payday.

The unsocial network

But, after the shining promise of its early days, followed by tempestuous teen years marked by scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and numerous grillings by Congress, has Facebook finally come of age just in time to be brought low by the new tech on the block, AI? Because the fact is that, despite around 60% of global internet users visiting it every month, Facebook is not really very social anymore.

According to The Economist, around half of all mobile phone screentime in 2023 was spent on social apps (and six of the 10 most downloaded mobile apps were from Meta) but they are no longer places where we all come together to create and share our own content, interacting as we go. The platforms have increasingly become social broadcast focused, feeding us content that algorithms believe we’ll react to rather than updates from the friends and family we actually know and care about. This doesn’t mean the platforms themselves are failing; social media usage shot up during the pandemic and hasn’t drifted back down to pre-Covid 19 levels.

This occurred alongside the shift to video, especially short form, driven by the rise of TikTok since 2017. All its major competitors now have their own copycat services – Reels, Shorts, Watch, Spotlight – but TikTok has explicitly stepped away from the “people you may know” intimacy of the original social media networks.

There are two indications that this is changing how we interact with the networks. A 2024 Social Media Benchmarks study notes that the amount of video we consume now makes up around two-thirds of time spent on social media, up from less than half pre-pandemic. The second is that it is cratering engagement rates on the old school networks; research by socialinsider puts Facebook’s at 0.15%, Instagram at 0.60% and TikTok at 4.25%. The short-form video app has also surpassed Google as the world’s most popular search engine. Meta’s pivot to video has clearly not lured in younger users, not helped by it being the platform all their parents and teachers are on.

We are all sharing much less of ourselves on social media with research by Gartner finding that only 28% of Americans share details of their lives online, down from 40% in 2020 and 61% say they are more selective now about what they post. Instead, people are increasingly connecting with friends and family privately using emails, WhatsApps, direct messaging or group chats. Sharing and posting is also in decline with the Reuters Institute at Oxford University finding that the percentage sharing news articles had declined from 26% to 19% in the five years to 2023. It also found that the reverse is true of instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp, where users posting news articles rose from 17% to 22% in the same period.

AI killed the social media star

This is a major problem for the social network that claims, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life” because it is increasingly clear that it does no such thing and that people no longer care to do so. Other platforms now have more specific and defined offerings to their users; Instagram for posed photos of people you pretend to like, TikTok for mindlessly watching videos in the loo. So, can the big blue thumb hitch a ride on the coming wave of AI-generated content, or will it be left high and dry?

Because if Facebook is still trying to be about real and genuine connections then how will it adapt to more and more unreal content being created? Brands are already signing up to be shilled by AI-generated influencers, oblivious to the fact that this is the antithesis of the value an influencer is supposed to bring; an audience that sees a reflection of themselves, their values and aspirations. Whether a video is ‘real’ in the sense that it has been shot on a phone rather than created from text prompts is less likely to bother a TikTok user scrolling through an endless stream of them than it will a Facebook user who is already being subjected to deepfake ads showing the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak flogging an investment app created by Elon Musk.

Well, amid the hype over ChatGPT, it was easy to overlook the fact that Meta has already established itself as a big player in AI and in doing so adapted Zuckerberg’s pet metaverse project which had been sucking up billions of research dollars. The metaverse was already built on AI technology meaning Meta already had the data, processors and developers primed to pivot.

Facebook’s adoption of AI was incredibly rapid, releasing its own Llama 2 large language model to developers free of charge in July last year and following it up with a pair of AI-powered Ray-bans a couple of months later. Facebook and Instagram now have a range of AI-powered chatbot avatars to try and engage people on the platforms more as well as help businesses with their customer services.

AI has also helped Facebook reinvent its advertising business after taking a substantial hit when Apple restricted data tracking across apps on the iPhone. Meta is now using AI to model consumer behaviour, replacing the data it was previously gathering. It has also introduced a suite of tools within its new Advantage+ ad platform that allows users to automate both the creation of campaigns and the creative itself.

Meta is also taking seriously the issue of AI-generated content potentially being used to fool users. Images created using its own AI tools is already watermarked to flag it as unreal but the firm says it will also be developing tools to identify and flag AI-generated images, video and audio from other sources.

It seems as though Facebook is finally coming of age and taking steps to becoming the grown-up in the room so we wouldn’t bet against it still being around in another 20 years.

   AI, strategy, influencer marketing, marketing, social media
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