Meta’s Big Squeeze

Ashley Belanger, reporting for Ars Technica in July 2022 in what I will call “foreshadowing”:

Despite all the negative feedback [over then-recent Instagram changes], Meta revealed on an earnings call that it plans to more than double the number of AI-recommended Reels that users see. The company estimates that in 2023, about a third of Instagram and Facebook feeds will be recommended content.

Ed Zitron:

In this document [leaked to Zitron], they discuss the term “meaningful interactions,” the underlying metric which (allegedly) guides Facebook today. In January 2018, Adam Mosseri, then Head of News Feed, would post that an update to the News Feed would now “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people,” which may explain the chaos (and rot) in the News Feed thereafter.

To be clear, metrics around time spent hung around at the company, especially with regard to video, and Facebook has repeatedly and intentionally made changes to manipulate its users to satisfy them. In his book “Broken Code,” Jeff Horwitz notes that Facebook “changed its News Feed design to encourage people to click on the reshare button or follow a page when they viewed a post,” with “engineers altering the Facebook algorithm to increase how often users saw content reshared from people they didn’t know.”

Zitron, again:

When you look at Instagram or Facebook, I want you to try and think of them less as social networks, and more as a form of anthropological experiment. Every single thing you see on either platform is built or selected to make you spend more time on the app and see more things that Meta wants you to see, be they ads, sponsored content, or suggested groups that you can interact with, thus increasing the amount of your “time spent” on the app, and increasing the amount of “meaningful interactions” you have with content.

Zitron is a little too eager, for my tastes, to treat Meta’s suggestions of objectionable and controversial posts as deliberate. It seems much more likely the company simply sucks at moderating this stuff at scale and is throwing in the towel.

Kurt Wagner, Bloomberg:

In late 2021, TikTok was on the rise, Facebook interactions were declining after a pandemic boom and young people were leaving the social network in droves. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg assembled a handful of veterans who’d built their careers on the Big Blue app to figure out how to stop the bleeding, including head of product Chris Cox, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri, WhatsApp lead Will Cathcart and head of Facebook, Tom Alison.

During discussions that spanned several meetings, a private WhatsApp group, and an eventual presentation at Zuckerberg’s house in Palo Alto, California, the group came to a decision: The best way to revive Facebook’s status as an online destination for young people was to start serving up more content from outside a person’s network of friends and family.

Jason Koebler, 404 Media:

At first, previously viral (but real) images were being run through image-to-image AI generators to create a variety of different but plausibly believable AI images. These images repeatedly went viral, and seemingly tricked real people into believing they were real. I was able to identify a handful of the “source” or “seed” images that formed the basis for this type of content. Over time, however, most AI images on Facebook have gotten a lot easier to identify as AI and a lot more bizarre. This is presumably happening because people will interact with the images anyway, or the people running these pages have realized they don’t need actual human interaction to go viral on Facebook.

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Instagram confirmed it’s testing unskippable ads after screenshots of the feature began circulating across social media. These new ad breaks will display a countdown timer that stops users from being able to browse through more content on the app until they view the ad, according to informational text displayed in the Instagram app.

These pieces each seem like they are circling a theme of a company finding the upper bound of its user base, and then squeezing it for activity, revenue, and promising numbers to report to investors. Unlike Zitron, I am not convinced we are watching Facebook die. I think Koebler is closer to the truth: we are watching its zombification.