Analysis: Did Mark Zuckerberg blow up Facebook from the inside?

Posted1/13/2018 1:10 AM
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disclosed late Thursday a drastic change to how Facebook determines what people see when they surf the social network.

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg disclosed late Thursday a drastic change to how Facebook determines what people see when they surf the social network. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

For much of the past few months, Mark Zuckerberg has been thinking aloud about Facebook's mission. He kept saying he wanted Facebook to become a place for meaningful social interaction. His resolution for 2018 was to "fix" Facebook.

It was a call to arms, but for what? It wasn't clear how his musings might translate into substantive changes to a digital hangout for more than two billion people. Now we know.

Zuckerberg disclosed late Thursday the billionth, and seemingly the most drastic, change to how Facebook determines what people see when they surf the social network. The stated goal is to make Facebook feel less like a depressing cesspool. (Zuckerberg didn't put it that way.)

The company is reprogramming its computers to prioritize posts on which people feel compelled to interact in a rich way, by writing a long reply to a grieving family member, for example, or by having a back-and-forth with friends about a wacky local TV news story. It seems like a bit of a return to Facebook's roots, which was more about the first word in "social media" than the second.

The company wants people to aimlessly scroll and surf Facebook less and instead wallow for a while in a meaningful interaction or two. Whether this makes people feel less bad about hanging out on Facebook, or makes Facebook less of a tool for propaganda or misinformation, remains to be seen. People share puppy photos on Facebook but also misleading diatribes about people they don't like. And misinformation turns out to be pretty darn engaging.

The effects of Facebook's strategy change are hard to know for certain; the company frequently shakes up what it prioritizes in the main stream of posts called the news feed. But this one sounds like a doozy. Facebook is likely to become a much different place from the one it is today.

The big warning -- imagine alarm bells ringing on a broker's desk somewhere -- is that Zuckerberg expects the changes to lead to a decrease in the collective time Facebook's users spend there. There's a direct relationship between the quantity of time people spend surfing Facebook and revenue. More time translates into more slots for Facebook to sell ads, which translates into overflowing Facebook cash registers.

Some stock analysts worried on Friday that Zuckerberg didn't address the potential business implications of Facebook's mission shift or didn't seem to care about them. Shares are declining in market trading.

It's worth noting that investors tend to say they want businesses to make short-term trade-offs to improve companies' long term health. We're about to see if investors put their money behind Zuckerberg's principles, and their own. If Facebook's revenue growth slows materially in the next few months, will they panic?

The big glaring losers -- besides investors' delicate stomach linings -- are the millions of companies that sought to build a business on Facebook. The company warned that its computer systems are likely to circulate less information from Facebook accounts of businesses and more from personal accounts.

That's bad for news organizations, entertainment companies, Main Street coffee shops and giant corporations trying to reach existing and prospective customers on Facebook. Those businesses need to adjust to the billionth version of Facebook's rule book. And they don't even have a copy of the rules. Only Facebook does.

More changes may be coming, too, that will have Facebook play a more direct role in determining what are legitimate news sources in its digital hangouts. That's something news organizations in particular have pushed Facebook and Google to do, but those tech superpowers have been reluctant to dictate what is trustworthy news and what's hogwash. It's possible Facebook will no longer try to walk the fine line between neutral tech platform and editorial dictator.

It was a stunning admission last month when Facebook's own researchers concluded the ways many people use the social network -- passively scrolling through their streams of posts -- makes people feel bad. Imagine if Ford had told people that taking long drives alone was bad for their mental health.

I don't know if Zuckerberg can "fix" Facebook through the changes he's making. But it's clear that Zuckerberg, like so many people outside the company, bemoaned the ugly downsides of the product he created. It may not be enough or even the right changes at all, but he is taking what seem like bold steps to blow up Facebook from the inside.

When Facebook, Google and other technology firms enshrine their founders with the power to overrule all other shareholders, this is exactly the moment to which they aspire. Zuckerberg doesn't have to fear being thrown out of his job because he's trading short-term interests for longer-term aspirations with both global social ramifications and financial uncertainties for one of the world's most valuable companies.

Zuckerberg has absolute power. We now have a real world laboratory test of whether he's using it wisely.


Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology.

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