in Tech

Facebook Today: The Party is Still Packed, But Nobody’s Talking

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I met a delightful guy at a house party a few weeks ago. We chatted animatedly about a few things we agreed on, and at the end of the conversation took the next logical step:, we became Facebook friends. Invites were sent and accepted, and that was that.

I never saw him again.

No, he didn’t die or anything, but he might as well have. Despite our FB connection, I never saw his posts, since the all-powerful News Feed algorithm eschews his content in favor of other friends it knows I enjoy, based on our FB interactions. To Facebook, this was just another of the few hundred Acquaintances on the platform whose Friendships show nothing more than an Added date. Our ‘connection’ accomplished nothing.

After a few weeks I realized this and took drastic steps. I FB messenged him and asked for a phone number, thereby simultaneously adding a new avenue of communication and informing the FB algorithm that this was someone I wanted to see in my newsfeed. Now we’re in touch, but I can’t say the same for the other few dozen people I’ve friended on Facebook recently. ‘Friend and Message’ is the new ‘Friend’, at least in functional terms, and not everyone I Friend is important enough for me to remind Zuck that I care they exist.

Everyone Has Facebook But Nobody Posts to It

The whole debacle reminded me of the odd spot Facebook is in nowadays. Amidst all the tech services, it remains the one platform that everyone has. Outside of a few iconoclasts, everyone assumes you have an account. It’s not “Do you have Facebook?” but “What’s your Facebook?” – no matter your age or country of origin.

Indeed, asking for your Facebook isn’t even a big deal. Nobody says no to that. Somehow it conveys less personal interest than the potentially risky ask of ‘What’s your number?’, plus here there’s no chance of her giving her a fake profile. I’ve friended plenty of people who I would hesitate giving my number to – at first I added them to a ‘Restricted viewing’ list, but now it doesn’t matter anymore. From parents to relatives to business contacts to lovers, they’re all in my Facebook friends. Facebook has saturated the Western market, which is best understood best by the fact that my mother and her mom friends may be more active on it than me and my friends.

She does far more than log in and tick off the notifications like I do. Before, she was the one amazed at the random funny videos I’d find online, but now it’s me whose impressed at the stuff she finds through obscure Internet mom grape vines. Throughout history this was the demographic who shared the most, and now they’re doing it on Facebook. (To such a degree that Upworthy, the company that scientifically formulates its posts to go viral, targets its headlines at middle aged women

That’s fine that the moms are sharing on Facebook, but it’s the young hip demographic that any platform needs to stay relevant, and those people aren’t sharing on Facebook anymore. Everyone has it but they barely use it, as this 19 year old undergraduate puts it:

In short, many have nailed this on the head. It’s dead to us. Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave. It’s weird and can even be annoying to have Facebook at times. That being said, if you don’t have Facebook, that’s even more weird and annoying. Weird because of the social pressure behind the question, “Everyone has Facebook, why don’t you?” and annoying because you’ll have to answer that to just about everyone in classes you meet who makes an attempt to friend you or find you on there.

Perhaps this is the downside of Facebook’s pervasiveness. Since everyone has it, it’s less polite to post incessantly throughout the day, whereas on the other platforms encourage it by their very nature.  Elsewhere, there is no complicated friend algorithm determining what you see – instead it depends on whether you logged in around the same time the content was posted.

Yet the fact remains that everyone is still on Facebook. If you want to get the most Likes, views, or awareness, Facebook remains the best way to do it. (In marketer terms – low engagement, but high reach – although Facebook’s lack of organic reach means it’s also the worst platform for marketers.) So what the heck is everyone doing there, if they’re not posting?!

Messenging and Events Only

If they’re anything like my social circle, they’re using it to send messages and to fill their social calendar. I’ve noticed those are just about the only things I do in Zuckerberg’s world anymore. My notification list has become a bloated list of irrelevancies and my News Feed falters after the second scroll, but Facebook remains the best place to find out where my friends are going IRL before it happens. Some of my friends even check their Facebook inbox more often than others like email, or even SMS. It sounds sacrilegious at first, but if you think about it, it makes sense – you can even message all those Acquaintances you friended and forgot, because you’re Facebook friends! And this was no accident.

When Facebook spun off  its Messenger into a distinct app, it seemed odd, but now I see why they did it. If they spun off  Events as well, I’d have little reason to click on the blue F at all. The only reason I log in nowadays is to message those friends whose numbers I lack (often for their number), and to check for events on my Fun calendar (as opposed to my Apple business calendar). Facebook is great at fulfilling those needs, but not so much at giving me interesting content. Partly due to its maddening algorithm that prioritizes ads and the people I’ve messaged recently, but also because Twitter and other platforms do it so much better.

 What Does That Mean for Zuck’s Future?

So as I say, it’s this weird paradigm that everyone has and checks daily, but nobody puts serious time into. And somehow because of that everyone keeps adding Friends on it, because it’s not a truly personal platform anymore and there’s seen to be less risk than that of a phone number of Snapchat. Yet paradoxically, many new services auto-populate using your FB friends list, and some people prefer FB Messenger to SMS, which brings things back into Facebook once more. It’s like Facebook is the infrastructure holding the social Web together, but without participating in the fun. Everyone goes to Zuckerberg’s parties because they know everyone else will be there, but nobody talks to him.  

Snapchat, Instagram, and the rest continue chipping away at Facebook’s core strengths, most recently the will of brands to pay and market there, as as the Snapchat Discover feature proves. Where will Facebook be in ten years? It’s still strong enough to ward off contenders like Ello with a network effect of 1.35 billion people, which isn’t going to change in this generation. As long as teenagers think Facebook is something they need to sign up for, it will remain a juggernaut – no matter how much they eschew posting on it in favor of others.

Zuckerberg has combated this so far by buying up the competition. But that’s not always going to work, especially with Snapchat as a poster child of Zuck-less success. They’re going to have to figure out another way to convince people to come back – or somehow capitalize on this packed party that people always show up to without talking.

Maybe it will evolve into something like a friendlier Linkedin, a platform where I only seldom post meticulously worded posts calculated towards vague ulterior motives like ‘career capital’ and ‘personal brand’. A personal PR firm of sorts, rather than yesterday’s stream of consciousness.  That’s no way to conduct a friendship, but it might be what Facebook Friendship becomes.

  • Nik

    Excellently written post Corey.
    You really have a knack for articulating your ideas.

    I was confused at the time when Messenger spun-off from the Facebook app but in hindsight it makes complete sense now.

  • JP

    I haven’t used FB in over 2 years. It’s a complete waste of time, all interaction feels robotic and non-personal. I prefer social media that lends itself to artists sharing their work, eg Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, even Vimeo which isn’t really social media, but there is still a bit of a community aspect and I would much rather scroll through that then meaningless updates from people I met once at a party 4 years ago