Apparently, Facebook users are sharing less personal content – Inc. calls it “original broadcast sharing”: Content that consists of users’ own words, pictures, videos. From 2014 to 2015, this type of content share apparently declined by staggering 21 percent and contributed to an overall sharing decline of over 5%. The headlines all impy that Facebook now – finally, since all of them predicted that at least once a year for the last decade – is doomed.
According to the various articles that, if you follow the trails, in the end all lead to an article on theinformation.com which is not publicly available, Facebook has gone into crisis mode. I think this probably is true since such a steep decline cannot be in Facebook’s interest – in a given week, 60% of users reportedly do not post a personal, original update at all, while 39% on average just post 5 times a week (says Inc). Most articles mention the “On this day” feature that motivates you to re-share past experiences, some refer to proposals in your status box that show a link that you last copied or photos that you just took, asking if you may want to share those with your friends, as reactions to this development and a try to increase user-generated-content-sharing again.
I agree with the view that all this is meant to increase our own, personal shares, and it may even be true that the newsfeed algorithm has been tweaked in order to prefer user shares over professional content (regardless whether it has been posted by users or professional sources). So I am not saying it is not a problem – I just don’t think it is such a huge and existential one. And I strongly disagree with the explanations and reasons most articles have provided:
– That it is so crowded that no one wants to share anymore.
– That all this professional content de-motivates people to share their own stuff.
– That growing privacy concerns let people share less.
– That people have amassed meaningless connections among their friends they don’t want to share content with.
– That there is a big “Facebook fatigue” and people simply don’t like the service anymore.
– That Instagram, owned by Facebook, is just “cooler”.
– That Facebook wouldn’t care what they have to say
and so on. I disagree.
My theory is pretty simple: One major contributor to this development has to be the existence and growing popularity of messengers. What all these explanations ignore is this:
Facebook is one big public social network. Messengers let us handle a variety of private micro-networks.
A few years back, we used to post everything on Facebook. It simply included our private micro-networks, or we did not have the means to serve them accordingly. Today, we use a number of messaging services, in parallel to Facebook, not only for 1:1 communication, but also for groups. School classes, football clubs, professional teams at work, even the 34 Chelsea players currently on loan have a WhatsApp group. When we post something publicly on Facebook, we actually really do “broadcast” (which becomes really, really apparent now with the live feature). The mysterious algorithm decides who and how many of your friends (and beyond) will see the content, mostly based on audience reactions to it. There is a level of insecurity to the broadcast: We cannot expect all our friends to know about the content of our last post, because we do not know who saw it, and when.
Messaging is completely different. There is no algorithm. Our “feed”, the list of conversations, is sorted by time, the newest conversation on top. Unread is bold. When we send out a message on WhatsApp, Messenger, Line, Viber, Kakao… we know it will be delivered to all recipients and we can even track whether it has been seen or not. That’s where messaging is superior even to those Facebook updates that are limited to a certain audience. Plus, it is a lot easier and more comfortable to put together a group of recipients in a messenger service than on Facebook. In my eyes, without having any numbers at hand, this has to be an area where a lot of content goes that previously may have went on Facebook: private micro-networks in which content is shared that we may not want to broadcast publicly, and where we know that the recipients will be exposed to the content.
To me, private micro-networks and public social networks complement each other. Since Facebook owns WhatsApp with a billion MAU (and also 1 billion groups) and Messenger now with 900 MAU plus Instagram, I wouldn’t worry so much about the company. It’s more than fine. Facebook, the newsfeed app, needs to find a way to motivate the people to broadcast, while the more specific communication will probably continue to happen in messengers.
We all expect next week’s F8 to be all about Messenger, while being less about the communication between users described here and much more about a “WeChat-ification” of Messenger in enabling business-to-user interaction and in many cases also transactions. But all this is built on the private micro-networks as they are our initial motivation to frequently use and cultivate our messenger accounts, just as much as connecting with friends is our primary motivation to use Facebook, even if we consume more and more professional content there. My best number on WeChat (China) is that the average user has “only” 128 friends in the app (way less than Facebook with 338, with the median being around 200), underlining my point that WeChat is a service to handle private micro-networks, while Facebook is a public social network. But all these businesses and services on WeChat, from “O2O (Online-to offline) transaction” to e-commerce and gaming etc., the fact that 55% of WeChat MAU open the app more than 10 times each day – all this is built on the communication features. The communication in private micro-networks is the foundation for all these businesses. If we transfer this insight to Facebook, we see that users send close to 10bn pictures to each other on Facebook Messenger. We see that WhatsApp has 1 billion groups and more than 1.6 billion pictures are shared there daily. If this is where the “missing” original user status posts from the newsfeed app are going, Facebook (the company) is completely fine.