One of my coworkers shared this link recently: Why Facebook Is Powerless to Stop its Own Descent

Spoiler: the reason given is that Facebook has “lost credibility.”

I have several objections to this “analysis,” although I don’t think the issue of Facebook’s “credibility” is irrelevant. 

Is Facebook In A Death Spiral?

No, I don’t think it is.

First, I think this article overstates Facebook’s alleged descent.

As a result, the public’s trust in Facebook has dropped precipitously.

In a survey of 3,000 people by the Ponemon Institute this spring, 27% said they agree with the statement “Facebook is committed to protecting the privacy of my personal information.” A year earlier, 79% said they agreed with that statement. In 2015, the number was 76%.

At the same time, user engagement on Facebook has also dipped significantly. In 2016, users spent an average of one hour per day on Facebook. That has dropped to roughly 41 minutes per day in 2018, so engagement is down by a third.

Further, Facebook user growth has stalled out, as the company reported at the end of last month.

I can’t seem to find this Ponemon Institute survey that is cited, but I did find lots of articles reporting on it, so I can’t tell you much about what I think of the questions or methodology. If there’s anything that listening to the Five Thirty-Eight podcast has taught me, it’s to be skeptical about polling data and journalistic analyses associated with it.

But I’m willing to grant some benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that in a year, this very accurate and appropriate measurement of public sentiment captured this dramatic drop from 79% to 27%.  I agree that is a precipitous drop, but it also That tells me that price of “trust” is exceptionally volatile out there in the public square.

The article suggests that the cause of this drop is in part due to the revelation that Cambridge Analytica violated Facebook’s terms and violated user privacy.  So, in being the victim of bad players, Facebook suffers in the eyes of users. I don’t think that’s necessarily irrational for users — although I suspect people are much more forgiving of other things, like banks, for example — but it substantiates the claim that the public’s trust in things like Facebook is a very squishy and fickle thing.  A few dramatic headlines and people respond negatively to survey questions. Quelle surprise.  The real question is whether such sentiments will remain low. I doubt it and I’ll tell you why in a bit.

We’ve all heard aphorisms about trust being easily lost but challenging to build.  That’s true enough, but there are countless stories of companies bouncing back after a scandal. It seems to me that trust is easily lost but people are also forgetful. So, there’s no reason to think Facebook is on an unstoppable slide into oblivion from that alone.

Are people actually behaving as if Facebook has lost their trust or are they just saying that? That’s why the other two statistics, about user adoption and engagement, are much more telling and interesting.

Although the article addresses adoption last, I’m going to talk about it before the engagement number.  It is overblown to say that user growth has “stalled.”  User growth did come in less than expected, but remains in an solidly upward trend.  The company did not say user growth stalled; not even close. The company reported user growth of a “mere” 11% on their more than two billion users. Moreover, with more than TWO BILLION users it’s reasonable to expect that growth will slow simply as a result of saturation of the available market.  That is far from being a death rattle.

Quarterly Facebook User Growth Worldwide
Quarterly Facebook User Growth Worldwide Source:

As for user engagement, the mere fact of a decrease is somewhat notable, but it’s hard to tell if that is really a good thing or a bad thing for the company and it leaves me asking, “Where did people go with their extra 20 minutes?”

Facebook and other such apps also regularly report to us about how active users in particular demographics are. I wasn’t able to find any more recent, more comprehensive data, but it does look like there may be some reason to think there’s a leveling off or downward trend in use of social media overall. Even so, Social media remains incredibly popular.  Further, even if use of Facebook’s eponymous app — not to mention their other very popular platforms — has slowed, they generate over $6 in revenue per user, an exceptional number among social media platforms.

So, that leaves us questioning the claim that the slowing — not stalled — user growth and reduced user engagement is a function of some lack of credibility that Facebook has or some reduced trust in Facebook itself.  I don’t think the author has provided us with sufficient evidence to support the claim.

Conclusion: FACEBOOK LIVES!!!

But that doesn’t mean that I think Facebook doesn’t have a “credibility” problem. 

My conservative friends have been saying for years that Facebook is censoring them and keeping their views from reaching a wider audience.  With Facebook’s manipulation of its trending items and our newsfeeds, this isn’t implausible even though Facebook denies political bias.

What confuses me is that people “trust” Facebook or any other platform in the first place.  My favorite stupid joke online is that you’re not allowed to put anything fake or false on the internet.  It’s like how my mom used to joke that you can believe everything you see on television.  So, either people have some pretty naive understanding of what it means to use a website that is paid for by advertising or these concepts of “trust” and “credibility” are not defined well-enough for us to understand to any degree of utility what people mean when they say they have more or less of them.

I’ll spare you the digression for now, but I find the whole notion of “trust” with regard to Facebook perplexing. If someone asked me if I trust Facebook, I wouldn’t know how to respond.  Trust them to do what? Trust them to make money off of me? Sure.  Trust them to filter my newsfeed to make sure only happy, true things reach my eyeballs? No way. Besides, wouldn’t it be easier just to give me the chronological order I’ve been asking for since they took it away?

But Maybe Facebook Should Die

Not really. Not, like, die dead forever not alive. But just a little bit dead.  Die a tiny bit so people can actually be as happy as the social media image some people work to create of themselves.

I am a VERY active user of Facebook. And I am largely happy with the service Facebook provides me.

I used to blog a lot more frequently than I blog today and I built up a wide network of people with whom I have a connection.  Some of those connections are people whom I’d describe as good friends today. When I began to withdraw from “public life” a bit, I stopped being so public with my social media profiles, but I kept a lot of the connections I’d already made.  

On top of that, I’ve moved around the country a fair amount in my adult life.  Georgia, New York, Tennessee, Florida, California… and so I’ve made real life friends in far-flung places.

And I also have family around the country who are using Facebook to follow the growth of our family.

For me, Facebook is indispensable.  Perhaps that’s a function of the fact that most of my friends and family are my age or older and the young people tell me that Facebook is for olds.  But it is still a fact that Facebook is key for keeping in touch with most of them.  And if I get any friends/family from among the younger strata, they’ll have to connect with me on Facebook if they want to connect with me.

We’ll see if that changes as our baby grows.

However, like a lot of people, I’ve been trying to pull back from social media a bit.  I haven’t been particularly successful at it, but I have been trying.  While Facebook is very useful and often extremely entertaining, it’s a time suck. And sometimes it makes me very anxious, like when I see friends arguing over something.  So, I’ve been trying to cut back on it a little.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. I don’t have to tell you that social media has been connected to all sorts of ills.  Anxiety and depression. Misinformation and the proliferation of uncritical, anti-scientific thinking.  Bullying and terrorism. etc. etc.

So You Been Publicly Shamed
by Jon Ronson

Another problem with social media is its short attention span, long memory, and brutal sense of justice.  I can’t imagine growing up with social media and I am thankful that I didn’t. I saw a story the other day about baseball players apologizing for things they posted on social media years ago.  The scale of social media makes it very different from any other social trend we’ve seen in the history of humanity and we have not developed a coherent, consistent set of rules for how to get over online misbehavior and it’s costing people their livelihoods and lives.  As a parent, I am concerned because we also don’t have good methods for teaching our children how to deal with this, either.  I’m dreading the teen years.

People are getting hurt. Really hurt.  There’s even evidence to show that social media has contributed in part to a rise in suicide among young people.  I think it’s too easy to say we should somehow hold social media companies accountable for this, but I don’t have any good suggestions for how to address it, either.

The latest episode of the IRL podcast does a good job of going over some of the pros and cons of social media.  And, like me, they don’t really reach and hard-and-fast conclusions about what’s to be done here.

Social media isn’t going anywhere.  The technology is here to stay. Humans are going to remain social animals.  But we have to learn.

We have to learn how to be more critical thinkers about the content we consume. We have to learn how to be kinder, more thoughtful members of our online communities.  We have to learn how to give people the maximum amount of freedom of expression while maintaining standards for civil conduct but reserving the maximum punishments of social justice for the worst offenders.  We have to learn how to forgive bad behavior where appropriate.

I love social media and I have a lot of faith in my fellow humans.  But these are strange times and uncharted territory.

IMAGE CREDIT: Featured image is from Pexels