Opinion | Facebook is trying to be more like Tiktok, but that risks alienating its users


For years, Mark Zuckerberg was the envy of chief executives everywhere. He was sitting at the helm of arguably the most successful company in history, rivaled only by Google in its explosive pace of growth. The firm’s juicy profit margins floated around 35 percent. And due to the canny structuring of voting shares, he controlled the whole thing, not having to worry about hostile takeovers or fussy shareholders.

Best of all, this enviable position was buttressed by powerful network effects. Each user on a social media network makes it more valuable to other users, which makes it very hard for new upstarts to compete with your service. You’ll often hear these effects referred to as a “competitive moat” — but in the real world, moats can protect only a small area, while on the internet, competitive moats not only expand as your firm conquers more territory, but actually get harder to cross.

In the past couple of years, however, something has changed. Now, instead of other executives wanting to turn their companies into little Facebooks, Facebook and Instagram seem to be turning into copies of TikTok.

Under Zuckerberg, Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, had already invested heavily in video, pushing it so hard that among content creators, “pivot to video” became a sour joke. But in an April memo, Tom Alison, the Meta executive in charge of Facebook, laid out a new plan to rejigger the platform’s main feed to recommend posts from people you aren’t following, making it more like TikTok: a place for algorithmic discovery , rather than a place to see what your friends are doing or thinking about. Instagram has also moved quickly in that direction — so far that it has sparked a revolt among its influencers (most of whom are great at producing envy-inducing photography, but not necessarily at creating viral videos).

You can’t exactly blame Meta. While Facebook and Instagram both have larger user bases, TikTok is coming up fast behind. It is already the sixth-most used social platform in the world, and last year, it was the most downloaded app. It has also surpassed Facebook for time spent on the platform, and may be set to surpass YouTube this year.

Meta has been facing a number of challenges — such as a stalling user base and changes to iPhone privacy rules, which have dramatically undercut the company’s advertising revenue by making it harder to track user activity. The company is looking to reinvent itself as the future of virtual reality, investing billions in developing the “metaverse.” But those investments will take a while to pay off — and in the meantime, companies with Facebook’s particular kind of competitive advantage have to keep a keen eye out for potential disruption.

The thing about network effects is that they work both ways. When your network is growing, it keeps getting steadily more valuable. But if it starts to shrink, each departing user makes the service slightly less attractive to those who remain. This is why Facebook has been so aggressive (too aggressive, the trustbusters murmur) about acquiring potential competitors and adding features that are popular on other apps. It needs to protect that nice, wide moat — which is frankly looking a bit stagnant.

Younger users don’t favor Facebook the way their elders did — indeed, they probably don’t favor Facebook because their elders did. They want their own spaces to talk to each other in, and TikTok is their new favorite.

This marks more than one company displacing another in the hearts of youths; it is a massive social shift, akin to the rise of social media itself. Social media was always a time sink, but nevertheless, at its heart were social relationships (or para-social relationships with the influencers we felt like we knew). TikTok, with its constant stream of brief videos from total strangers, is something closer to pure distraction, a passive sport for Generation ADHD.

That’s not quite as despiriting as it sounds, for people haven’t necessarily given up on chatting with groups of friends on the internet. Many have just disappeared into private group chats across a range of applications that don’t feel so much like a public display — and aren’t nearly as likely to result in a viral cancellation. On average, those smaller, more select groups are probably quite a bit more social than what “social media” has become in recent years. It wouldn’t be a total disaster for society if Facebook and Instagram came to reflect the new style.

But it might well be a disaster for Instagram and Facebook. The services are no longer feisty, fluid start-ups; they’re behemoths with a devoted user base who (by definition) liked things the way they were. Under pressure from his power users, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri last week told the tech site Platformer that some of the TikTok-like changes would be rolled back, including reducing the number of posts it recommends from strangers.

Yet the riskier possibility is that Facebook and Instagram will succeed in becoming something considerably different, something not just more focused on video than photos or text, and on serendipitous discovery than on long-term relationships. Such a shift might head off the threat from TikTok, but it would also undermine their greatest competitive advantage: the connections to real-life people that keep us coming back to the boring old familiar apps, rather than swiping onward in search of the next distraction. .

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