The “Problem” with Facebook

I just read another short article about how online advertising is destroying planet earth. This time it’s focusing on Facebook. The article posits that “Facebook Can’t Be Fixed” without “completely gutting its advertising-driven business model”. Like a lot of these new age articles, the premise sounds good, but it just doesn’t make sense.

Facebook’s Problem is not Monetization

It sounds good because it’s easy to scapegoat advertising in general, and it’s even easier to connect with readers who think the web should be advertising-free. But the author never bothers to explain why Facebook’s advertising-driven business model is a deal breaker. He just banks on the premise that everyone hates advertising.

So the statement’s validity is a given with no further explanation, and no need for justification.

In my opinion, Facebook does have problems (don’t we all?). But it’s advertising format is probably one of the least of them. At least with Facebook there’s a reasonable use of data gathering to show relevant ads (and not too many). So I strongly suspect that most users won’t find ads to be the most bothersome thing about it.

Here’s a short list of the real problems that Zuckerberg may be facing (in my opinion) that can be addressed to improve Facebook. Teaser alert: committing existential suicide by gutting its ad-driven revenue model isn’t one of them.

1) Facebook is getting creepy. When synthetic programmed responses try to have an interpersonal relationship with me, it’s annoying. When “Facebook” talks to me, saying: “Hi (firstname). We care about you and we want you to … ”

STOP! … Please …. I’m not 9 years old, and I don’t need my social media platform anthropomorphized into my personal, platonic¬† digital friend … who “genuinely cares about me”.

We all know that Facebook wants to monetize our personal data and relationship activity, and that’s a given among mature adults (the people with money to spend from ads). So please tone down the idea that we actually feel nurtured by programmed responses. If Facebook’s data assumptions are telling Zuckerberg that more than 51% of ad-revenue-producing users feel good about being nurtured by A.I., I stand corrected. But I still think the majority find this creepy.

2) User content is downright frightening. We all know the feeling. Moderate, tolerant people who thought they knew and liked other moderate, tolerant people are finding out that their friends are emotionally challenged, completely illiterate, class discrimination extremists, racists, extreme left socialists, right wing nationalists, narcissists, obsessive-compulsive – you name it.

Facebook as a social “shock therapy” platform can’t be sustainable long term. I’ve noticed the “changes” in posts. Maybe having topical versions of Facebook could help. One for “the beautiful people”, one for stalkers, one for political activists, etc…

3) Facebook is getting a bad rep. It’s reputation as a “dopamine-driven engagement trap” is getting increased awareness and this does not bode well for users who eventually read about (and can understand) the psychology of Facebook addiction. This is a tough one and may require a serious PR effort to combat. I see a lot of reduced usage by friends who are more likely to be exposed to this material (myself included) but I don’t think addictive personalities can break the habit just by acknowledging “step one” (admission). If Facebook just admits to reality, in the right format, it will do wonders for this roadblock.

And there you have it. Details aside, these three problems are what I see as the toughest to resolve and most damaging to the long term sustainability of its engagement model. They have nothing to do with advertising. There’s a bunch of little things like irrelevant notifications (why notify me every time a friend joins messenger?) that could amount to “death by a thousand cuts” but they are either a subset of the big three, or too few (or too minor) to matter. I think those will be addressed accordingly.

But again, the charge that “You cannot fix Facebook without completely gutting its advertising-driven business model.” is just another broad indictment of capitalism on the web. If Facebook is guilty, so is Google. Neither of these companies has a bottom line in revenue growth or stock price (with Google more time-tested) to justify such a baseless claim.

Finally, when you consider the incredible amount of business you can potentially generate through Facebook without spending a dime, a paid ad here or there is a very small price to pay.  As revenue models in advanced economies continue to shift, the opportunity to create targeted audience groups and sell to them (the right way) is a huge free opportunity that is so inherent to the platform, Facebook would probably never charge for it (only to boost it).

Since most people don’t “get it” (inherently understand the power of audience segmentation / relevance) they will pay for these “boosts” – in essence letting Facebook broaden their reach beyond their friend network. And that’s a sustainable model for now, and probably for a while. Though it’s surprising how a friend network can expand through “similar interest” groups. Now the glue is “common interest” more so than acquaintanceship.

Facebook’s big threat is greed (isn’t everyone’s?). If they in fact eventually find a way to charge for what is free today – if they somehow manage to monetize groups for example, it will be the beginning of the end, a.k.a. “move over MySpace. Hello, whatever’s next”.