The fall (and fall) of Facebook

Facebook is pretty much dead. By that I mean, dead to it’s original target audience – me, or my generation. Millennials have drifted away from it, Gen Z won’t go near it, and it’s haunted by Gen X and the Boomers. So, what happened? Why is Facebook just not cool anymore?

Having lived through my fair share of social media platforms, from MSN Messenger to the great Myspace / Digg / Tumblr exodus’, I’ve learned to see the signs. I think we’re waiting for The Next Big Thing, but it’s not quite shown its face yet. Most modern platforms are just a reflavoured, sped-up version of Facebook, each a ‘Facebook Killer’ at launch, but none have yet managed to topple the giant, only carve off a piece at a time.

This is my Millennial-skewed opinion on what went wrong. First, let’s look at how we got here.

Tom's no friend of mine

At one time, the most viewed photo in the world

I remember, back in college, when Gmail came out. 

It had that exclusive ‘you can’t have this’ vibe going on, where you could only get an account if you were invited by a friend. My tutor at the time invited a few of us, and we shared from there. I think it had 1gb of storage available per user, for free(!), something that blew our tiny 256mb MP3 player minds.

I abandoned my Hotmail account, but I still use the Gmail account to this day. For spam, obviously. I’m not using my embarrassing ‘cool-at-the-time’ email address for work correspondence. Last check it has over 10,000 unread messages, storage limit still holding strong.

Myspace was king. In school I’d set up my page, adding a music player (hidden of course, so you couldn’t stop it), and had a few years of building connections. I remember one lesson in college where we learned how to code a background for our profiles in pure CSS. I can partially thank Myspace for my career.

Then, something happened. It grew stale. No-one knows for sure what triggered it, but we left en masse to an arguably worse platform, the new kid on the block, Facebook.

It had no customisation, no music, no ‘Top Friends’. But it was new, and I think that’s all that mattered. We rebuilt our connections, filtered out old friends, curated our posts.

Years later, Instagram came along, but something had changed. We all set up new accounts, sure, but we kept Facebook. 

Why? Well, it was just so… bothersome to transfer it all over. 

We had gone from a few emo selfies on Myspace (thank God they’re all gone), to our formative years pictured in detail, thanks to the increase in digital cameras and new camera phones. We didn’t want to lose this stuff. So, we kept it. 

We kept in touch with our real friends on Instagram, curating our posts to show a more idealised version of ourselves, but Facebook was where the history was. Like a chain around our necks, weighed down by all the ridiculous opinions we used to hold (let’s not talk about my Ayn Rand phase, Jesus Christ), but it was all mixed up with priceless memories.

‘On this day’ is about the only thing I look at these days, commenting “Bump” (itself an old internet reference) to trigger everyone to look at an old cat picture, or a memorable night out. “We look like babies!”

So, it’s a sort of zombified account that we can’t bear to get rid of, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to use with any conviction anymore. So who is using it now?

Bring on the Boomers

“You spend too much time on the computer/phone/tablet,” everyone’s mum said about 10 years ago, “you should go outside and do something.”

Well, who’s outside now, everyone’s mum? We’re now the ones having conversations with the backs of Chromebooks, with foreheads over iPads, with Marylin Monroe flip-cover phone cases.

Like the Myspace migration, we can’t say for sure when it happened, but at some point, everyone’s bloody parents invaded. It was funny at first, kind of endearing.

Graham likes: Holly Willoughby Bikini Appreciation Page
Graham said: “How do I remove post”
Graham said: “Remove please Facebook or I shall call my solicitor.”
Graham likes: Kylie Minogue Holiday Snaps
Graham said: "DELETE"

Then, they started getting involved. Suddenly our hilarious photos were rife with boomer comments.

Jake said: “Top night out mate, you were fucking waaaaaasted!”
Mum said: “I don't like you hanging about with Jake if he swears! Where are you? Who is that girl and what is she wearing? CALL ME NOW"
Grandma said: "Shut up Sandra that's how you met his dad"

Suddenly, Facebook wasn’t cool anymore. We had to carefully curate a PG-friendly version of our lives and keep the good stuff on Instagram. Then Facebook saw the writing on the wall and bought Instagram. 

Then the boomers invaded that. 

There was no escape.

The content goldrush

So, outside of our own content, holiday snaps and comments, what were we looking at on Facebook?

Remember listicles?

Top 10 bovine train disasters, you won’t believe number 3!

They were invented on sites like Cracked (I say the website is dead, but, well, just take a look at it now.), College Humour (RIP), and the like. The listicle was invented because it spread out an article over multiple pages, each with their own set of ads, effectively diluting easily written, addictive content with a massive advertising increase. For a while these were linked from Facebook directly to their own websites.

Then, another kind of Facebook migration happened, something written about extensively elsewhere, but the basics are this: Facebook launched a new video platform, lied about their viewing figures, and everyone jumped on board. 

Stand-alone websites were abandoned in favour of Facebook exclusive content, and advertising money never came.

One Reddit user, commenting 2 years ago on a post-mortem of the site, said this: “Tons of companies at the same time made an ill considered video pivot based on the idea (inflated metrics by Facebook) that there was a bigger market for video content and expanded video content…When Facebook came clean and admitted that their numbers were artificially inflated, this caused MANY places to reassess and cut their losses… If you asked All those people, Soren, Daniel, David, Michael, etc. They would tell you Facebook was to blame.”

Facebook had lied about their reach, got found out, and nothing came of it. Facebook gobbled up the content, but the creators were financially ruined. Their websites died, and were reinvented (Ladbible, anyone?) but none replicated the sheer volume of content and advertising money that the old websites churned out. 

An industry rose up and was wiped out in a handful of years. Now, Facebook’s clickbait content is produced by the successors to these sites, but arguably at much lower quality, and nowhere near as profitable.

So, what happened to the people who shaped the internet into what it was only a few years ago?

Everyone left Cracked (ahem, were all simultaneously fired) and set up some of the best Podcasts out there, Behind the Bastards, The Dogg Zone 9000 (itself a podcast spinoff of ‘The last comedy website on the internet‘), Gamefully Unemployed, all hosted by former Cracked comedy writers. But how do they make any money? Advertising, yes, but most are directly funded by their fans on Patreon. The fans followed the content.

Others left Machinima and College Humour and set up on their own on YouTube, itself quickly overtaking all others for its sheer volume of available content (whilst having its own share of content-creator issues). Stand-alone websites were dead, the only way you could make it as a content producer was on an existing social media platform.

Was that Facebook’s goal all along? Kill the competition? Or was it just a comedy of errors?

Tik-Tok goes the attention span

Anyone remember Vine? It was a flash-in-the-pan app with one new idea: 6 second videos. Arguably, the best worst idea ever. What Vine did, was reinvent content into extremely short, snappy, easily-digestible chunks. 

Content restriction is nothing new, Twitter’s character limit (and famous increase) meant users were familiar with concise information (and advertising), but video was something different. Now, with very little input, we could quickly expose ourselves to hundreds of ideas, sounds, shapes, and colours.

Comedy was rewritten. No set up, only punchline. Memes went from comic form to single images with captions, to just a face, to just a fucking stick insect on a windowsill. What did it mean?

“That’s literally me. I’m dead.”

Even this reference is old, and will be ancient history in a few months.

Facebook couldn’t compete. Its news feed is set up to show one thing at a time, scrolling slowly and looking primarily at your friends and family, peppered of course by ads and suggested posts. (that’s my job, sorry) The news feed had changed from ‘recent’ to ‘top posts’ to an invisible algorithm that thought it knew better than you what you wanted to see. 

More on that later.

Then came Instagram Stories, Facebook Reels, Snapchat and of course, Tik-Tok. Each following the same principle: more content, shorter clips, no scroll. Just auto play until the user leaves or the heat death of the universe. But how do you keep your users engaged?

There’s 2 methods: Outrage and titillation. 

First, titillation. Instagram and Tik-Tok users are thirsty. The most viewed content is highly sexualised, leaving users in a state of semi-arousal, semi-self hatred. Papers have been written on how Instagram in particular is ruining everyone’s self image

Outrage has a specific target audience – more on that later. What’s important, is that content is:

All of which have, I believe, has rewired our brains to dismiss other forms of entertainment. It feels good to lose yourself in the scroll, doesn’t it? 

Have you ever opened an app and scrolled for a while, only to suddenly come to, groggy and sleepy eyed, wondering where the time has gone? You close the app and instinctively open it back up again, content refreshed, a hit of dopamine releasesWhy sit through a film with one idea when I can see a thousand in the same space of time? Why read a book? Boring, slow, old.

There’s something scary going on.

I grew up in the perfect environment to understand technology. My first exposure to a computer was a little Acorn terminal in Primary School with a turtle you could program to draw shapes. Then came Windows, in all it’s buggy glory. We learned to troubleshoot. Stuff just didn’t work right, or was slow, but got faster as we grew and demanded more. We learned how to make it work for us.

It’s all a natural progression, isn’t it? Each new device slots easily into our lives. Only now it just works, no troubleshooting, no understanding what’s going on under the hood. We can’t even control what appears on our feeds anymore. Closely guarded algorithms take care of that.

One unique problem I’ve recently discovered is I’ve lived with ADHD my entire life (explains a lot). That means I’m literally wired to seek out new content all the time, and never growing tired of it. 

I’m Tik-Tok’s target audience.

Except, I daren’t install it. I don’t want to fall down that rabbit hole, don’t want to spend any more time on my phone than I do already (thanks, Reddit + Twitter).

During diagnosis I asked the nurse whether she’d seen an increase in people being diagnosed. “We used to have 7 referrals a month,” she told me, “Now it’s more like 70.”

I asked her why she thought that was. 

“Well, it’s trendy,” she replied, “it was on Love Island, I think someone on Instagram talked about it.” 

“Is it because people are more aware of it,” I asked,  “or are people just more likely to have ADHD due to the increase and speed of content we’re exposed to from a young age?” 

She wasn’t sure, and neither am I. We’ve all seen kids staring at iPads for hours. That can’t be good for their squidgy brains, can it?

The right-wing pipeline

So where does this leave Facebook? Visiting the site now is a whole new experience, thanks to its new target audience: your parents.

The goal of any social media platform is to retain users and increase engagement. That means, they are trying to keep you scrolling through the feed for as long as possible, as often as possible. You know what keeps people reading? Outrage. The second method of retaining your engagement.

Here’s an example of the pipeline on Youtube or Facebook, both following a similar algorithm. 

Say you read one of our great British tabloids like the Daily Mail. Facebook knows you might have certain views about, just for example, Meghan Markle. 

You know who talks about Meghan Markle a lot? Piers Morgan, the UK’s worst export aside from James Cordon. Piers by the way asked Meghan Markle on a date back when she was an actress in Suits, which she declined. I’m sure that’s unrelated.

Piers interviews guys like Jordan Peterson, that bloke in the suit who DESTROYS FEMINISTS. 

You see a link pop up on your Facebook feed. It’s Jordan Peterson DESTROYING A FEMINIST. The clickable title draws you in with it’s deliberately forceful language. 

The video is a short clip of Peterson using a Straw Man argument to fluster an ill-prepared newsreader on Channel 4. It’s funny, in a sort of car-crash-telly way. He certainly showed her. Dopamine hit.

You’re on Youtube now, without realising it, looking for more videos. It suggests Ben Shapiro, who is debating, sorry, DESTROYING a college student with arguments about wokism. The woke left, he argues, is forcing babies to have sex changes. You’re confused, angry that the ‘woke left’ would do such a thing. You try and collect your thoughts, maybe look for evidence.

But the next video has already autoplayed it’s way onto your screen. It’s a clip of Alex Jones screaming about Globalists taking over through the woke media. He’s funny to watch, too, in the same car-crash-telly kind of way, but the things he talks about wind you up even more. 

And those, what did he call them, Globalists? They do sound like they’re the cause of all my problems. Fuck those guys, right? Facebook suggests a group you might be interested in. If you’re American, they’re ‘Patriots’, or Q-Anon. If you’re in the UK, they’re ‘putting Britain first’, and showing immigrants crossing the channel in dinghies. You’re furious. Dopamine hit.

Alex Jones by the way has been ‘deplatformed’; banned from all mainstream social media, but his fans post reaction videos with provocative thumbnails, and his content gets out there. There’s no such thing as ‘cancelled’.

This entirely avoidable dive into extremist views is fuelled not by a deliberate influence on the political or sociological view of the content you see, but simply by the fact you’re more likely to stick around watching it if it pisses you off. Unfortunately, it’s so effective at retaining your attention that Facebook is unwilling to change it. Facebook’s own internal memos have raised awareness of this issue, but it has been ignored, even by Zuckerberg himself.

Unfollow me

Where does that leave us? Facebook’s original audience sticks around out of a sense of obligation to our past, it’s new audience is being radicalised by it’s curated news feed, and all the content has fled to quicker, newer platforms.

Hey, have you heard of the ‘Meta pixel’? This pixel is probably Facebook’s greatest innovation. Here’s how it works, and I know this because I run Facebook ads. 

Again, sorry.

Say you’ve got a website where you sell T-shirts. You set up a Facebook and Instagram to advertise your website, and you’re asked whether you want to add a Meta Pixel to your website. This literal pixel, when hosted on your website (usually hidden in the footer), tracks your users across your site. Same with cookies, those things you accept on every website you visit. They’re tiny trackers, following you around the internet.

That means you can send out an ad, and when a user clicks on it you can see what they did when they got to your website. This allows marketers (like me) to see how well the ad performed, whether you purchased a T-shirt or not, where you visited the site. Where you were when you clicked on the ad, what device you were using. Typically only 1.5% of ads convert to a sale, the majority of people will just scroll past. 

But how did Facebook know to put that T-shirt ad in front of you? Well, it used to be based on ‘likes’: 

Richard likes T-shirts = put the ad on his feed. Now it’s a little more complicated.

The Meta Pixel gathers data about all the websites you visit, and puts all this data together into a profile of things it thinks you are interested in. This data is hidden from advertisers, but we’re able to use it to identify the most targeted audience available. I can, for example, create an ad that targets people interested in, say, T-Shirts, centred 10 miles from my house, aged between 25-35, who are college-educated, working in the design industry. Facebook won’t tell me exactly who I’ve targeted, but I’ve got a pretty good idea I’ll see it.

Even if you’ve not got a Facebook profile, a marketing profile is created for you. The moment you create an account it’s connected to you, and you’re seeing ads on your feed for things you’ve never told Facebook you like, but it knows.

Google is doing the same thing. And Bing. Everyone’s at it. The golden rule of the internet is this – if the service is free, you’re the product.

Then Apple came along one day and said: “We think our users might like to retain their privacy.” 

And, with one little update, Facebook’s tracking, and therefore it’s advertising, was slashed. More recently, Samsung has followed suit. Facebook has lost billions, roughly the same amount it’s spend on VR (the Metaverse), thanks to it’s ads being less effective on mobile, which is where the majority of it’s users visit.

Speaking of the Metaverse, Zuck’s multi-billion project, where do we see that going? Oculus, a gaming headset maker, was bought by Facebook a few years ago, and Facebook quickly brought out the Quest headset, a pretty decent VR gaming device. 

We all wondered what it had to do with Facebook’s core business model – advertising. 

Now, with Zuck’s recent launch video, we’re able to see his vision. 

It’s just Zoom

Or, VR Chat mixed with Zoom. Integrated into just about every facet of you work, home, and social life. Yikes.

Message from Claire: "Graham has accidentally turned his avatar into an anthropomorphic turtle with a twelve-inch cock in front of the CEO, can you switch it back?"

“It’s like Ready Player One but BUSINESS,” I imagine The Zuck said to his board, “it’s The Next Big Thing!” He then bet the farm on it. 

Let’s see if this last-ditch effort works.