Facebook has lost its way.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the social networking behemoth veered off course. But as for how and why, that’s easy to nail down.
Facebook has a friends and family problem, meaning the tight-knit social fabric that drew us in — important or heartwarming posts from our moms, dads, sisters, brothers and besties — has all but unraveled. Instead, in our News Feed, we are left with partly satisfying updates from loose connections, the day’s news and the ensuing rants, and videos we never asked to see.
We are, in part, to blame. When Facebook told us to “like” Pages, we did. When Facebook encouraged us to “follow” celebrities and media companies, we did that, too. And, of course, some of us couldn’t help boosting our “friend” count just for the sake of appearing popular.
But, really, it all comes back to Mark Zuckerberg’s long-stated mission of making us “more open and connected,” a philosophy that couldn’t be further from reinforcing the types of private and meaningful connections most of us crave. And so Facebook’s algorithm has taken over.
No wonder today’s teenagers have decidedly relegated Facebook to second-tier social status, now finding it far less arresting than its hipper cousins YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. Or, as a recent Pew Research Center report highlighting Facebook’s fourth-place ranking put it: “The social-media landscape in which teens reside looks markedly different than it did as recently as three years ago.”
Maybe it’s as simple as teens not wanting to be internet friends with their folks. It’s probably more nuanced than that. Teens have instinctively gravitated to the two platforms that don’t confuse personal ties with public personas.
The catchall social network just doesn’t work for them. And it doesn’t work for us adults either. The difference is we continue to use Facebook. But for how much longer?
Facebook knows there’s a problem. The company’s “Here Together” TV ad tells us as much, even if it was primarily prompted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. That ad, though, is spot on. It starts with this simple truth: “We came here for the friends … but then something happened.” And the ad’s promise — to keep us safer and protect our privacy “so we can all get back to what made Facebook good in the first place: friends” — is great, if only we could trust the company to follow through.
Sadly, that “something” isn’t just the spam, click bait, fake news and data misuse identified in the ad. That something is Facebook itself, which thrives not on our friendships, but on our behavioral data.
For its part, the company has been making adjustments to News Feed since January.
“Earlier this year, we made changes to prioritize posts that inspire discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to,” a Facebook spokesperson said via e-mail. “We’ll continue to focus on these updates to ranking so people have more opportunities to interact with the people they care about.”
But the damage is done. We have liked, commented and shared our way to News Feed ambivalence and we are kind of stuck. If we are lucky, though, this disconnect will finally open the door for a newcomer to create the place that Facebook could have and should have been.
Jennifer Van Grove writes for the San Diego Union Tribune.