The Meta (formerly Facebook) stock value dropped 26% in a single day this week. It looks like the markets are finally realising what any actual Facebook user already knew: that the network is becoming less and less attractive. So many friends have stopped posting. The only reason they are even able to still advertise “billions” of users is because:
a) They keep buying up whatever site the action has moved to or might move to (e.g. Instagram, Whatsapp, Oculus VR) and then counting those users towards Facebook users. This will become increasingly difficult due to antitrust attention.
b) They barely ever remove fake/duplicate user profiles, such as the reportedly millions of fake profiles created to give fake Likes to company pages or the pretend-Republicans who influenced the American electoral campaign.
c) A lot of websites have implemented “Facebook Login”, e.g. to read your daily newspaper you enter your Facebook name and password rather than a password specific to the newspaper. Then you count as an active Facebook user even though you haven’t actually spent any time on Facebook itself, nor on a site owned by Facebook. The most important implication is that Facebook cannot display any ads to users who only use Facebook Login, so these people remain outside its reach unless they actively use another Meta product, such as Instagram.
Why are people moving away from Facebook and other Zuckerberg-controlled social networks? Privacy concerns and disgust with reported excesses is certainly one reason. But there is also something more fundamental going on, something which affects ANY successful social network after a while. For that it helps to look at the historic evolution.
Mark Zuckerberg‘s original idea was a platform to rate female students’ attractiveness. From these inauspicious beginnings, he created a place where people maintained connection to their classmates and friends. And occasionally, very occasionally — Facebook is not Twitter — made new friends through mutual connections or Facebook Groups. This roughly corresponds to Robin Dunbar’s 50-person “good friends” circle. Eventually even parents, uncles and grandparents and neighbours joined the network, so that Facebook fulfilled the purpose of a meeting-place for Dunbar’s 150-person “clan” circle.
After another while, bosses started to use it in order to vet applicants, and all employees of the same company were routinely encouraged to friend each other for social control (Dunbar’s 500-person “acquaintances” circle). This gradual broadening of who is on Facebook / who is your “friend” on Facebook was also the death of it. The kind of things you bond over with fellow frat boys is quite different from what you bond over as family and yet different from what you’re comfortable sharing with a co-worker or a potential future boss. (Even with the too-late introduction of the ability to limit who will see which content, it is too jarring to see both frat boy stuff and your grandma’s cookie recipe on the same website and in the same Feed.)
Dunbar showed that the differently-sized circles of friends/acquaintances around us are expected to provide and receive different social benefits. This is true on Facebook as everywhere else. When Facebook was just for 50-odd “good friends”, we shared authentic content and were vulnerable on it, because that circle thrives on intimacy and mutual aid. When our “clan” joined, Facebook became a place to get affirmation and only occasional support. At the current “acquaintances” stage, the natural use of Facebook would be for exchanging information on limited opportunities and the like. And some people do use it for that, but there are better sites. It also remains a site for bragging, even though affirmation from acquaintances is less valuable than affirmation from our clan.
Somewhere around the transition from being a site for “clan” to a site for “acquaintances”, we discovered that the average person doesn’t do/say all that many Like-worthy things in a day and that people want infinite Likes while only being prepared to spend limited time giving Likes themselves. This prompted the rise of Facebook quizzes, personality tests and games like Farmville, which commercialised the weaker Facebook “friendships” and ensured some level of reciprocity in aid. But at the same time ensured that these actions could no longer make us happy, as they were no longer authentic actions. There are only so many rare game results I’ll Like and only so many times I’ll help an acquaintance who “urgently needs” my help to water their virtual plants in some video game.
The gaming phase led to an exodus from Facebook, which is why Facebook eventually drastically restricted games’ ability to intrude on and commercialise natural friendships/co-workerships. Still, the damage had been done. Between the games and influx of more and more broad acquaintances, there is very little authentic friend-ing happening on Facebook now. Almost anyone still posting on Facebook is doing so for promotion of their projects or self-promotion. Who really wants to read a feed full of acquaintances’ and ex-coworkers’ commercial offers, mixed with disturbingly well-targeted paid ads and a few memes?
Ironically, the only places that may still offer a decent Facebook experience (very different from the original Facebook but in line with Dunbar’s prediction) are the groups dedicated to a particular locality, where you interact with strangers but they provide information on interesting local opportunities and some neighbourly help of the non-virtual kind. Instagram mirrored Facebook, first moving towards being a place for bragging and it’s now on its way to the final, commercial-content-focussed stage.
According to self-determination theory, humans crave autonomy, competency and relatedness. Facebook originally offered relatedness in the form of confessions, plentiful mutual affirmation, photos of nights out and so on. In its gaming phase it offered autonomy and competency along with some relatedness (in as much as you can be happy knowing that Elsa from tech support helped you water your non-existent virtual plants). And currently it offers neither, hence it has lost most of what made people originally crave Facebook.
Introducing the metaverse
Oculus VR, which Mark Zuckerberg bought and intends to base his metaverse on, is currently in the gaming phase (with less of a social focus than the equivalent phase at Facebook), offering chiefly autonomy and competency along with a bit of relatedness. It is also already possible to watch a movie or stroll around some beautiful landscapes in this virtual reality, but few people make use of this. Beaches are no fun without the sea breeze and the sand under our feet and a loved one by our side. And it will be two decades until there is a device, probably space-consuming, heavy, annoying, and affordable to just 1% of the population, that can do a reasonable simulation of the whole experience. It may also turn out to be too annoying to be commercially viable.
What if Zuckerberg really wanted to up the good vibes we get in his metaverse by upping the relatedness, to make it like the early Facebook? My prediction is that it’s impossible. Firstly, Dunbar’s problem hasn’t gone away and secondly, pictures of colleagues having an after-work beer in a virtual space will never be as popular as photos of the real thing, even if (50 years from now) it became possible to become intoxicated on virtual beer and dance shirtless on a virtual table. Content from the same platform (like one’s scores on Facebook games) does not work very well for Likes, at least not on a daily or weekly basis. That is to say, the majority of the content must continue to come from outside the metaverse if we want to get Likes for it. Which in turn means that we will continue to spend more of our time outside the metaverse (or very loosely plugged-in, as with Google Glass) in order to come back later in the day and collect some appreciation for what we post about these activities.
Also, there is a limit to how much the algorithm can amplify this. The first idea — to have an android, a fake user distribute a lot of appreciation to everyone -— won’t work because the Gyges Effect taught us that people are mainly motivated by the ability to reach and affect other people. Next, the Farmville experiment has shown that humans have limited tolerance for artificial relatedness. As soon as the majority of users understands that Elsa doesn’t really like them but was prompted by the platform to express a Like, or Elsa doesn’t really desperately need plant seeds from you but the platform made her request them, those interactions will stop feeling good. Finally, there is some space for an algorithm that shows particularly insecure users’ content to particularly many people, to give them a greater share of Likes or what passes for Likes in the metaverse. But the pie is small and (if it’s like Facebook) it’s getting smaller with longer exposure to the platform. Lying about who liked what is also a quick way to kill this platform.
But Zuckerberg is not in the business of creating a pleasure machine. He only wants to control the device that adults spend most of their life on, in order to get the ad revenue from all those hours. For as long as we don’t live in a Star Trek society, this means that the device cannot be primarily for gaming or entertainment, it must be for work. And indeed Zuckerberg already revealed that his plans are for the Oculus VR to become a co-working device that will allow you to see your colleagues next to you as if you were working at the same office. It is hard to imagine working while wearing an Oculus VR right now. It’s too heavy and bulky and doesn’t allow you to drink or move around the home while wearing it. Glasses may be a better bet, though naturally less immersive, and Google has tried and failed to make them popular since 2013. Will Zuckerberg succeed where Google failed? So far, all his successes after Facebook have been acquired, not achieved.
The final option mentioned in his metaverse talk is that of holograms. Holograms have already been used to deliver lectures remotely. But for as long as they don’t give the hologrammed person the sensation of being present, their use cases are also limited. What is more, animals don’t shit where they eat and humans don’t work where they play, or vice versa. The moment Zuckerberg succeeds in having Oculus VR replace Zoom, people will stop using Oculus VR for gaming, in order to satisfy the need to disconnect from work and to be unavailable to colleagues. In the best case scenario for him, he can control our working hours OR our private hours, he can control our interactions with friends OR with colleagues, but most likely not both at the same time.
This does not mean that our use of connective technologies will stay the same. The amount of hours any person spends online has doubled between 2008 and 2018 and is on course to continue to rise dramatically. The border between the online and offline world will keep eroding, with likely terrible effects for our societies and democracies. This is the techie idea of the “metaverse” in the sense of a point in time, rather than a particular Zuckerberg-owned software. But that is for another day.
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