YAHNIAN: Facebook is flawed beyond its News Feed

Zuckerberg should focus on creating more than 'meaningful interactions' for its users

op-Zuckerberg-CourtesyFlickr

Zuckerberg’s expressed hope for a product that makes people happier is at odds with his dual mandate to increase profitability through advertising and grow the user base.

Courtesy Flickr

Facebook is going to be more personal. At least that’s what Mark Zuckerberg claimed on Thursday after announcing the most significant overhaul to Facebook’s News Feed in years. The proclamation promises to prioritize posts from friends and family over those of brands and publishers for its 2 billion users. Despite a desire among virtually all major social media companies to refine their products to incentivize so-called “meaningful interactions,” the mission itself is at odds with the financial incentives which underpin their hefty valuations. Scrap the crap, Facebook — this mission is doomed from the start.  

Social media mega-companies operate in a unique space within markets, wielding hundred billion dollar market capitalizations for simply being glorified software companies. They don’t produce anything physical, and their valuations are heavily dependent on a single piece of hardware — the smartphone. As far as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy go, so too do these social media companies. With the “big four” — Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram — already publicly traded, all are subject to the constraints of shareholders. Namely, the two most important metrics for such investors are profitability and user growth. Luckily, the incentives for major smartphone makers such as Apple, Google and Samsung similarly align as they have poured billions into R&D and marketing to ensure the smartphone user base is not just maintained but expanded. They’ve been overwhelmingly successful, especially in the United States, with 77 percent of American adults in 2017 using a smartphone — up from just 35 percent in 2011. 

Facebook’s continued success, reflected by a seemingly incessant upward trending stock price, is based on market expansion in countries like China and India as well as an ability to create diverse revenue streams from newly announced food delivery and shopping services to its bread and butter, brand advertising. As people who use it know, the product itself is brilliantly crafted — with options at sign-up incentivizing users to add personal information such as their favorite movies, books, brands or people. Facebook then incorporates these pages into your News Feed while also giving the page owners options to promote their pages to people within targeted demographics, albeit with a price. After high-profile criticism of Facebook’s role in divisive political discourse, the 2016 Russian hacking with half of eligible American voters exposed to fake electoral content and the product itself simply making people unhappy, such a system is in essence what Zuckerberg has promised to reform. In other words, less content from UNILAD and more photos of a friend’s magical trip to the Bahamas. 

Zuckerberg himself has acknowledged that these News Feed changes might not be in the short term financial interests of the company, but he expressed a hope that meaningful interactions would benefit the company long-term. Tweaking a product can benefit users, and in turn, boost user growth. However, in the long-term, the financial interests of the company must win out. Whether it be Zuckerberg’s willful ignorance of the monolith he’s created or his shareholders’ authority over the direction of the public company, Facebook simply cannot be the idealistic positive force for good without drastic changes to its data-driven advertising business model. Zuckerberg’s expressed hope for a product that makes people happier is at odds with his dual mandate to increase profitability through advertising and grow the user base. With this simple fact in mind, Zuckerberg’s significant News Feed overhaul reveals itself to be a clever publicity stunt, from a disingenuous CEO caught in a catch-22. 

Yet, he’s misread the situation even further. Despite his, perhaps noble, decision to act against the short-term financial interests of his company, it’s undoubtedly going to end in failure because the problem with Facebook, the thing that’s making people unhappy, is not the oversaturation of advertising power in the News Feed — it’s the News Feed itself. More photos from family and status updates from friends over memes and dog videos posted from brands is not going to replace the spark of direct, personal interaction. It’s the impersonal parts of social media that are toxic, especially the Facebook News Feed. 

The beauty and utility of social media lies in its ability to foster these positive, personal interactions despite geographic separation — a hilarious quip in a GroupMe, that ridiculous photo in a Snapchat group, a FaceTime or even a message between two new friends on Facebook. It’s these moments that make social media a force for good, and if you’ll notice, a place where advertisers and brands have yet to penetrate. The long-term survival of social media companies relies not just on the capacity of Apple to pump out new, desirable iPhone hardware each year but on these companies’ ability to facilitate intimate interactions in a revenue-sustainable system. I have no doubt that Zuckerberg truly wants to make the world a better place — it’s noble, inspiring and worthwhile, but the Facebook News Feed is flawed far beyond a few minor algorithmic tweaks.

Ben Yahnian is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He may be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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