On watching Facebook die

“Facebook seemed like a great idea when it was released to the general public in 2006. But that was more than 15 years ago; and perhaps we know better now.” 

Unlike a lot of people out there nowadays, I don’t “hate” Facebook. On the contrary, I like Facebook quite a lot—or at least I used to.

I opened my personal Facebook account at the end of 2010, just as the social media site was reaching its zenith. By this time I was in my early 40s—old enough to have a long list of former classmates, neighbors, work colleagues, and even relatives whom I’d lost contact with. (A note to readers 39 and under. Before the Internet, you lost track of most people you knew from a particular setting when you moved on from that setting. That’s why class reunions became a thing in the first place.)

Within a few months of being on Facebook, I’d found almost everyone. And I do mean everyone. I even found a girl whom I’d had play dates with in the early 1970s. Our mothers had been high school classmates, and between the ages of four and six, we used to play together while our mothers visited each other. You can’t go back much farther than that.  

I learned, in due time, that online interactions aren’t the same as being there—even with people whom you were once close to. (This is one reason why I’ve never been a big fan of extensive online interactions with strangers.) But those Facebook connections led to many phone calls and in-person meetings with people from my past. 

Facebook was free to use, of course, and I knew the old adage on the Internet: If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. I knew that Facebook used some of my data for commercial purposes. This didn’t bother me overmuch, so long as it was kept within reasonable bounds. I started using the Internet seriously around the time of 9/11 and the Patriot Act of 2001. I have never assumed that anything I did on the Internet was completely private and secure, in the same way that what I say and do in my living room is private and secure. The Internet is, after all, connected to the entire world. And part of that world includes large corporations and governments.

And besides, I became a minor beneficiary of Facebook’s commercial aspect. After I started writing and selling books, I used Facebook ads to promote them. Facebook ads used to work well, and they used to be a bargain for small businesspersons. More on that in a moment.

During and after the contentious election of 2016, Facebook became a lot more “political”. Your friends used to post vacation pictures and other innocuous slice-of-life content. Now they were posting rants about Colin Kaepernick or Donald Trump. I began to dread logging on, wondering what so-and-so was going to say about the latest controversy in the news, and if I would have enough self-control to stay out of the fray.

I didn’t blame Facebook for this shift. I saw this as a case of the turmoil in our society infecting Facebook—not the other way around. It wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg’s fault that everyone was suddenly so “political”. 

But Mark Zuckerberg did make a bad situation worse—by injecting and imposing his own political biases. When I log on to Facebook now, I automatically see permanent links, put there by Facebook, that are ideological, or at least political, in nature. There are also accusations—and these seem to have some merit—that Facebook is biased in censoring content that might seem inflammatory or controversial. 

After the election of 2020, a significant number of my friends left Facebook. Some deleted their accounts, while others merely scaled back their activity there. Curiously, these friends came from both sides of the political divide. Many of them seemed to feel that Facebook just wasn’t much fun anymore. 

I might have left Facebook, too. But I still used Facebook’s advertising platform for my publishing business, and that remained useful. 

Facebook’s ad platform was designed to allow micro-targeting of prospects based not just on basic demographic factors like age and location, but also interests. Want to target a forty-something man with an interest in bass fishing? A twenty-something woman with a passion for Taylor Swift? Facebook ads allow you to do that.

This makes advertising more cost-effective, because you don’t have to waste money putting ads before the wrong people. Instead of advertising a product to everyone, you’re able to put an ad before a select group of people who are likely to be interested in it.

Then that changed, too. In early 2021, Apple implemented a change in iOS 14.5 that enabled iPhone users to opt out of tracking. This made Facebook’s ad targeting features much less reliable. 

In the months since the Apple iOS change, Facebook ads have become far more expensive, because you have to show ads to a much larger audience in order to find the right audience. Apple sold the iOS change as a boon to consumers and users, but I’m not so sure. I used to see Facebook ads that actually interested me. Now I see Facebook ads for all kinds of random stuff, as large corporate advertisers throw spaghetti at the wall. 

But they’re throwing a lot less spaghetti at the wall nowadays. Facebook’s ad revenues are down. Many small businesspeople (myself included) have all but stopped advertising on Facebook. 

Facebook’s business model is suffering as a result. But that isn’t the only factor affecting Facebook negatively. Young people began migrating away from the platform around five years ago. That might not have been fatal. There is a niche to be had as a social media platform for adults; but adults in the United States and Canada have been reducing their time on Facebook since mid-2020, for the reasons described above.

Facebook doesn’t make automobiles like Toyota or Tesla. Facebook can’t sell you a cup of coffee like Starbucks. Facebook, at the end of the day, is just a website. A hollow shell. If Facebook can’t retain users or advertisers, then its days are numbered.

For a brief while, Mark Zuckerberg had proselytized the Metaverse, a plan to convince us all to become cartoon characters in a virtual realty universe. The Metaverse met with reactions ranging from indifference to mockery. Zuckerberg seems to be backing away from the Metaverse, and there are rumors that the scheme may eventually be scrapped altogether.

Metaverse: the Zuckerberg vision of the future?

None of this bodes well for Facebook. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, recently announced another mass layoff. This comes at a time when companies that actually make things, sell things, and deliver things are all in a hiring boom. 

Anyone old enough to remember MySpace, GeoCities, or Napster knows that once mighty Internet companies can not only decline, they can implode altogether. It doesn’t take a monumental leap of imagination to foresee a near future in which Facebook doesn’t exist, or exists in some rump form of its current and former self.

Facebook’s decline comes at a time when many people are reevaluating the whole idea of social media. Social media, we should remember, didn’t even exist until the mid-2000s. If you logged on (as we used to call it) in 1998 or 2001, the Internet was a vast, diverse, and decentralized place. In those days, we couldn’t even agree on a single search engine—there were at least a half-dozen of them, from AskJeeves to AltaVista. 

That old Internet was also much less interactive. To reach someone on the Internet, you generally had to email them. With email-based communications, your mileage could vary. Maybe the other person would get back to you, and maybe they wouldn’t. 

But given how nasty online communications have become, and that now conventional piece of wisdom—“don’t read the comments”—we might reasonably ask ourselves if the comparative isolation of the pre-social media Internet was better. Do we need a real-time connection to a billion strangers every time we go on the Internet in order to enjoy it? And do we need social media companies to corral us all in a big room and force us to talk—whether that big room is Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok?

In that context, the not improbable demise of Facebook isn’t such a bad outcome. Facebook seemed like a great idea when it was released to the general public in 2006. But that was more than 15 years ago; and perhaps we know better now.