Facebook turns 20 today, but the platform is nothing like what it was in 2004 – or, more comparably, in 2008, when it overtook MySpace, it was open to all (not just uni students) and it had the reputation of being a “safe space,” Forbes reports, because everyone had to sign up with their real name. Ah, I remember it well.
Despite the grilling he received on Capitol Hill last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced the next day in his quarterly earnings report that Meta is now valued at $1.2 trillion, The Economist reports, and Facebook now claims 3 billion users. But they’re experiencing a very different platform than that of two decades ago. For one thing, they must really, really like video shorts, because videos and closed-group socializing are where Facebook and social media in general are going. From social networks to social media – as in consumed media served up by algorithmic tracking of what we like to watch from celebrities and other strangers, TikTok-style, rather than algorithmic tracking and displaying of what we like to see from our families and social circles.
“This matters,” Economist writer Gil Press reports, “because social media are how people experience the internet…. The lights have gone out in the town square.” It’s more like a drive-in theater or private screening room. As for the content being viewed….
News makes up only 3% of what people see in social media now. Across the platforms, “only 19% of adults share news stories weekly, down from 26% in 2018.… [This] is everyone’s problem when nearly half of young people say that, just as the platforms decide news is no longer interesting, social media are their main source of news.”
That’s “source” in terms of creators and influencers talking about the news in short videos on all major platforms. If you like that creator’s personality or presentation style, you might choose them as your “news source” over some dodgy actual reporter. But if you’re into politics and/or civic engagement, you might consciously avoid spicy political videos. Or you might just be more picky and, depending on whether your confirmation bias is strong, you might choose a “big brand” news outlet instead of a right- or left-wing influencer or just a less judgmental one or one who is really interested in journalism and enjoys dissecting news stories on TikTok.
That’s just the news part of the less social way social media’s going. Then there’s all the AI-generated “information” that’s showing up in social media more and more. AI models are making stuff up too. So, even as US lawmakers seem to be getting ready to regulate social media, they might visit some real town squares and find out how their constituents (young as well as old) are using social media. Because, “as social networks wither,” The Economist concludes, “platform operators and users [and I would add legislators] should devote less time to the old battles and more to grappling with the new.”
A note about the illustration above: Yes it’s definitely creepy. It’s part of a little experiment with generative AI that may prove 1 or more of 3 things: that text to image GAI needs to improve, that my prompts need to improve or that I’m cheap and you get what you pay for with free GAI tools (fair warning to all my fellow individual [non-corporate] users out there trying to use GAI for free). This image was created with DALL-E 2, which I came back to after trying Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and Imagine with Meta. Most turned up creepy results like this when I prompted each for a “black and white, photorealistic illustration of a 20th birthday party….” The best was Meta’s but when I tried to open a screenshot and download from imagine.meta.com in Preview on my Mac, Preview crashed. So I went back to Dall-E and got the slightly less creepy result you see here.
P.S. I said a little more about lawmaking around all this in my last post.