A Self-Defeating Statement
Last week, Facebook posted an essay on their company blog titled: “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” The statement confronts this blunt prompt, admitting that social media can be harmful, and then exploring uses that research indicates are more positive.
Here’s the relevant summary of their survey:
“In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse afterward…On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being.”
From a social perspective, Facebook should be applauded for finally admitting that their product can cause harm (even if they were essentially forced into this defensive crouch by multiple recent high level defectors).
From a business perspective, however, I think this strategy may mark the beginning of the end of this social network’s ubiquity.
Until last week’s statement, Facebook’s messaging embraced an ambiguous mix of futurism and general-purpose positive feelings (their mission statement describes themselves as a tool “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” whatever that means).
The company promoted the idea that they’re a fundamental technology, as much a part of the fabric of society as electricity or the internet itself. From this foundation, it was easy for the company’s supporters to dismiss critics as either anti-technology eccentrics or anti-progress conservatives (I speak from personal experience) .
As I’ve written before, however, once a social media company like Facebook starts talking about specific uses of their tool, and tries to quantify the value of these uses, they enter a competitive arena in which they probably won’t fare well.
In its statement, for example, Facebook emphasizes that using their service to “actively engage” with “close friends” can generate measurable increases in well-being in research studies.
But once they enter this concrete debate it’s natural to start asking how much does this lightweight digital interaction increase well-being, and then compare these benefits to the numerous other ways one might seek to actively engage close friends.
I haven’t conducted this study, but I suspect that the benefits of a semi-regular beer with a good friend absolutely dominate the benefits generated by half-heartedly tapping out emojis on the friend’s wall while waiting out Hulu advertisements.
Put another way, once social media services are forced to make a sales pitch, as oppose to leveraging an inherited position of cultural ubiquity, they suddenly seem so much less vital. It’s not that these services are useless. But when considered objectively, they fall well short of earning the default status that they both currently enjoy and rely on for their high-volume attention economy business models.
Which all leads to the conclusion that 2017 is shaping up to be an unusually bad year for Mark Zuckerberg.