Jul 25, 2022 - Technology

Sunset of the social network

Illustration of a Facebook default profile picture as a setting sun.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Mark last week as the end of the social networking era, which began with the rise of Friendster in 2003, shaped two decades of internet growth, and now closes with Facebook's rollout of a sweeping TikTok-like redesign.

The big picture: Under the social network model, which piggybacked on the rise of smartphones to mold billions of users' digital experiences, keeping up with your friends' posts served as the hub for everything you might aim to do online.

Now Facebook wants to shape your online life around the algorithmically-sorted preferences of millions of strangers around the globe.

  • That's how TikTok sorts the videos it shows users, and that's largely how Facebook will now organize its home screen.
  • The dominant player in social media is transforming itself into a kind of digital mass media, in which the reactions of hordes of anonymous users, processed by machine learning, drive the selection of your content.

Facebook and its rivals call this a "discovery engine" because it reliably spits out recommendations of posts from everywhere that might hold your attention.

  • But it also looks a lot like a mutant TV with an infinite number of context-free channels that flash in and out of focus at high speed.
  • That's what younger users right now seem to prefer, and it's where Facebook expects the growth of its business to lie, now that new privacy rules from Apple and regulators' threats around the world have made its existing ad-targeting model precarious.

Between the lines: For roughly a decade following the 2008 financial crisis, social networks — led by Facebook, with Twitter playing an important secondary role —dominated the internet's culture and economy.

  • Their rise came with high hopes they might unleash waves of democratic empowerment and liberate self-expression around the world.
  • But their chief impact emerged in the transformation of the media industry and the digital advertising business.

Facebook bested rival MySpace and absorbed or outmaneuvered challengers like Instagram and Snapchat as it transformed a simple "social graph" of human relationships into a moneymaking machine that helped businesses, particularly smaller outfits, target cheap ads with uncanny precision.

  • Rivals tried and failed to beat Facebook at the social network game — most notably Google, with multiple forgotten efforts from Orkut to Google+.

Yes, but: As the profits mounted and vaulted Facebook into the exclusive club of Big Tech giants alongside Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, so did the problems.

  • Facebook's friend counts and "like" buttons turned human relations into a depersonalized metrics competition.
  • Keeping up with the volume of posts became a chore, which was why from 2009 on Facebook's news feed defaulted to an algorithmic, rather than chronological, sort.
  • That drove many users, particularly political organizations, to crank up the volume and try to game Facebook's program.
  • Over time, critics charged, this dynamic became a driver for extremism, misinformation, hate speech and harassment.

Be smart: TikTok-style "discovery engine" model shares many of the same problems.

  • Posts are even less rooted in a web of social relationship.
  • The larger the crowd, the louder the threshold for speech to be heard.

Of note: As it rolls out its changes — quickly on mobile apps, "later this year" for computer/browser users —Facebook will continue to provide old-school friends-and-family networking via a subsidiary tab. Those posts will be chronologically ordered, as some users have long wished for.

  • This move also helps Facebook avoid claims of bias in its sorting and keeps the company ahead of regulators who are threatening to restrict its algorithms.

But the era in which social networking served as most users' primary experience of the internet is moving behind us. That holds for Twitter, Facebook's chief surviving Western rival, as well.

  • Twitter never found a reliable business model, which opened it up to an acquisition bid by Elon Musk. Whatever the outcome of the legal fight now underway, Twitter's future is cloudy at best.

Our thought bubble: The leadership of Meta and Facebook now views the entire machine of Facebook's social network as a legacy operation.

What's next: Messaging will continue to grow as the central channel for private, one-to-one and small group communications.

  • Meta owns a big chunk of that market, too, thanks to Facebook Messenger and its ownership of WhatsApp.
  • At the other end of the media spectrum, the "discovery engines" run by TikTok and Meta will duke it out with streaming services to capture billions of eyeballs around the globe and sell that attention to advertisers.

All this leaves a vacuum in the middle — the space of forums, ad-hoc group formation and small communities that first drove excitement around internet adoption in the pre-Facebook era.

  • Facebook's sunsetting of its own social network could open a new space for innovation on this turf, where relative newcomers like Discord are already beginning to thrive.

Go deeper:

Axios' Scott Rosenberg spoke with Niala Boodhoo about the TikTokification of Facebook on the Axios Today podcast. Give it a listen.

Go deeper