Posted on April 20, 2016
If you are a Facebook user, you have certainly become acquainted with its new ‘On This Day’ function, whereby Facebook shows your activity from that date from years previous. Aside from looking back at your questionable fashion choices and reliving vacations, the feature demonstrates how our use of the platform has dramatically shifted since we first logged on.
Much of the change in our Facebook use can be attributed to our familiarity with social media, upgrades in functionality and the wide adoption of the smartphone. When Facebook was first launched in 2004, we didn’t have the ability to snap a picture, post a video or host a live broadcast from our phones. This meant that the very nature of Facebook use was more deliberate; early users had to be sitting at a computer, not waiting for an elevator, to use the platform.
Along with technology, our personal networks on the channel have also evolved. For early adopters, our Facebook friends were classmates (in its infancy, Facebook was restricted to students with university email addresses), but now, they likely include your close and extended family, former coworkers, travel acquaintances and, maybe, your current boss.
Further, veteran users know what sort of posts are likely to receive positive engagement from their networks. You may have been very keen on promoting a band you discovered, but if your friends didn’t share your enthusiasm with likes and comments, human nature dictates that you are less likely to share something about that band or your taste in music again. In contrast, phenomenons like the Ice Bucket Challenge of 2013 would not have taken off if user networks did not pick up the challenge as a fun, shareable, and popular endeavour.
As Facebook matures and an individual user’s network includes many years’ worth of acquaintances, the social channel invariably becomes less intimate. Social media is certainly less social if you are deterred from sharing an article on oil prices because you are concerned someone in your network will bomb the comments with conspiracy theories. And it is certainly less social if you are wary of posting photos of a late Wednesday night at a Blue Jays’ game with beer in hand. Unsurprisingly, Facebook just isn’t as fun when you know your mother-in-law or boss could be watching and your news feed is dominated by the same loud people.
Further, early adopters of Facebook are now in their late 20s and 30s and are perhaps now too busy with their careers or young families to endlessly indulge in the medium. This is worsened by the fact that younger millennials are taking to Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to share their personal moments away from parents’ prying eyes. Regardless of the motive, from 2014 to 2015, ‘original broadcast sharing’, posts with a user’s own words or images fell by 21 per cent, while overall sharing dropped 5.5 per cent.
Facebook is aware of this fact, with insiders dubbing the decline in user sharing as ‘content collapse.’ To combat this, Facebook tweaked its news feed algorithm (how it decides what to display to its users) to favour user-generated content over posts from brands. This pushes marketers to use paid advertising to reach users, while ensuring that a post from your university roommate is not weighted the same as an organic one from a local pizzeria you might like.
Despite these operational updates, Facebook understands the days of users dumping 30 pictures from their vacation are over and personal moments are migrating to Snapchat, Instagram (owned by Facebook) and messaging services (Facebook owns WhatsApp). That is why the company is rolling out prominent notifications on Mother’s Day or Siblings Day (apparently that’s now a thing) to encourage user participation. Together with its ‘Memories’ function Facebook is trying to have users associate the platform with warm feelings of family, friends and nostalgia.
In addition to these engagement initiatives, Facebook is launching new features, like virtual reality and chatbots, to stay competitive and keep users from clicking off the site. These changes will better position Facebook for the long term, with the clear aim of transitioning Messenger into an ecommerce platform. At its F8 Conference this month, Facebook touted the ability to order flowers or clothing all within Messenger. If successful, developers may abandon their own apps and instead latch onto Facebook as the primarily tool for transactions, much to the chagrin of PayPal, Amazon and others.
Combined with Instant Articles (third-party articles that load instantly without leaving the Facebook app), these efforts all act to prevent users from clicking off Facebook in the moment, curtailing usage, or deleting their accounts all together. As Facebook moves towards publishing and ecommerce, users will become more dependent and hard-pressed to write off the platform as frivolous social media.
The ‘Hotel California’ effect of being able to check in but not being able to leave will certainly be good for Facebook’s bottom line and reinforce the need for marketers to stay at the edge of the platform’s features and best practices. Buzzfeed’s live Facebook broadcast of an exploding watermelon attracted more than 800,000 viewers, demonstrating that although user sharing is in decline, it is still possible to engage at a large scale. No matter the medium, audiences will always have a taste for entertaining or emotive content; smart campaigns will just have to keep up.
Photo credit: Rodion Kutsaev