Innovate or Die?! — Facebook

Last week, I read a few articles on the problems Facebook has, and how the company is trying to address the issue. But the more I mull over the issue, the more I feel that the proposed “solutions” miss the mark, which led me to wonder… Does Facebook need a complete rethink of its offering?

The Issue, briefly…

…is that people are sharing less personal information.

For most, our daily interaction with the platform sees friends (or ourselves) sharing trivialities and impersonal information. Our feeds these days are filled with an assortment of cat videos, memes, or with luck, an interesting article or two. Whereas previously, users of Facebook were sharing more personal information — checking in to a location to tell people where we were, what we were doing at the time, who we were with, the things we like…

This change to the non-personal sharing is problematic for Facebook because its revenue model relies on selling personal data to advertisers. Without consumers sharing personal information, it becomes difficult for Facebook to sell targeted information, especially since information becomes dated as users grow over the years. This information needs to be “up to date” to be marketable.

Driving this change towards the impersonal is something that has been termed the “context collapse”, a situation ironically created by the likes of Facebook. It describes a situation where there are no clear boundaries between different contexts: e.g., a social media post that is meant to vent work frustrations to personal friends might end up being seen by everyone, including work colleagues.

Beyond that, our personal usage tells us that we are more likely to see “sponsored” posts from brands, celebrities or businesses, which also means that it might not be an entirely useful platform to connect with our social circle.

Putting these together, it just feels that Facebook is no longer serving the needs of its users as an intimate, social platform to connect to friends.

The solution?

In trying to address this problem, Facebook has decided to “steal” with pride. The company introduced Instagram Stories, and subsequently Facebook Stories, as a way to compete with SnapChat, a platform where many users — particularly the younger demographic — are sharing instant “snaps” that disappear just as quickly as they are seen.

It is important to keep users on Facebook, and this seems to be an ingenuous way to borrow an idea that is working elsewhere. If users are indeed staying on Facebook/Instagram longer, then Facebook can also explore a new revenue model — to sell sponsored posts on Stories.

Against early predictions, Instagram Stories is proving to be successful. It hits the right spot for the target audience on Instagram: an interaction in-between Snaps, which is sent to a specific person and gets automatically deleted, and a perfectly composed, filtered, permanent Instagram post. It allows for users to spontaneously communicate with their friends without the perfect filter, and has no public comment feature which can lead to intense discussions that could have impact on the lives of the individuals involved.

According to Techcrunch, Instagram’s daily use surpassed Snapchat with 250 million daily users, as opposed to 166 million on Snapchat. Also Instagram users spend a longer time in the app, especially for the under 25 audience, as compared to SnapChat.

There’s another story here about Snapchat, but that would be for another time.

But is it actually solving the problem?

Admittedly, this means that there’s new revenue stream for Facebook, but the solution seems more like Facebook (as a company) side-stepping the “context collapse” problem through Instagram, rather than solving the problem it is facing.

We do not yet have figures on Facebook Stories, but anecdotally, usership seems scant, as opposed to Instagram Stories. This could be because Instagram introduced Stories earlier, but it is increasingly looking like Facebook Story is not solving the issue it is facing.

If the problem is because of a collapse of context, and users are reluctant to be too personal on the main Facebook app, then the “Story” feature seems to be missing the mark. Stories demand that users share spontaneous moments in life, which begs the question that this content are fit to be shared to their Facebook connections.

It does not allow users to (easily) create different contexts for sharing such that work colleagues does not see content meant for personal friends. It does not encourage users to share more personal information. It does not take into account the changing needs of the users.

What Facebook needs to do at this point is to rethink its offering and attempt to find a spot where it is both commercially viable and meets the needs for the user.

Is this about allowing users to easily create different contexts for their shares so that people start sharing again? Is this about making Facebook a curator of content with a subscription service? Is this about using Facebook app as a main driver into the ecosystem but using its other platforms to drive revenue?

I am sure there’s a team of brilliant minds already at work on this in Facebook, but it is still interesting to ponder about what innovation Facebook will come up with next!