Context Collapse: meeting Facebook last headache
Apr 25, 2016
Context Collapse Threatens Facebook's Dominance as Users Share Less Personal Content and More Third-Party Content, Posing Challenges for the Social Network's Future.
"And then let there be Facebook", and Facebook came into being. While the Bible doesn't mention this, if it had chronicled the history of digital media, Genesis 1:3 might have read something like this. Facebook, the quintessential social network, is so outstanding in every aspect that imagining it with problems seems unreal. Yet, it's true: Facebook is no longer compelling users to post pictures of their dogs - and this is a concern.
Could a company with 1.6 billion direct customers (a figure that has grown 14% year-over-year, a staggering rate for such large numbers), generating more than 4 billion interactions (the likes, an icon of pop culture), and projected to increase its revenue by about 300% over the next two years...be at risk?
No, it's not - but the current issue isn't the usual speculative chatter of the technology press. It's a structural problem.
When Mark Zuckerberg first started programming myfacebook.com, he probably didn't envision the magnitude his company would eventually reach. Nevertheless, it wasn't accidental. His instinct to create a large interactive catalog of people mirrors the artistic process of capturing the subtle nuances of a specific moment. With Facebook, Zuckerberg devised the perfect platform for marketers where users reveal their likes, dislikes, frequency of preferences, and more.
Facebook's revenue generation doesn't stem from publications, programs, celebrities, or entities, but from companies. These companies see Facebook as a golden opportunity to pinpoint the perfect audience for specific campaigns. The user might not realize it, but they're practically helpless against this targeted marketing: the appeal is tailored, timely, and delivered in the right manner.
This marketing strategy hinges on users being willing to share parts of their lives. Without this openness, much of Facebook's power diminishes.
Setting privacy concerns aside, there's nothing inherently wrong with Facebook leveraging the niche it established. It's not dishonest to exploit certain situations, and Facebook has capitalized on its competitive advantage. It will take a long time for any entity to pose a serious threat to its dominance in Western media.
Is Facebook in trouble?
This article from The Information reports that Facebook users are sharing less personal content and more third-party content. As Facebook has been encouraging more publications to feed content into its platform, it's understandable that the proportion of personal content has decreased. However, that's not the whole story.
The alleged reason for this decline relates to Facebook's maturation as a social network. As the first generation of users surpasses a decade of use, their timelines have become uncontrollable. The addition of people outside their immediate circle has put users in a state of unwanted exposure. Despite Facebook's tools to exclude unwanted viewers from posts, the majority of users (about 90%) don't use these tools due to lack of knowledge. Consequently, the amount of personal content shared has decreased.
The Information refers to this phenomenon as a "context collapse", which is essentially a situation or individual being exposed to a wider audience than intended, preventing adaptation.
Facebook is taking steps to combat this issue, whether it's due to "context collapse" or not. There have been several months of attempts to encourage users to post personal content. Features such as "On This Day", which reminds users of past posts, and more prominent birthday reminders are some of the measures taken. There's even a project to pay users with significant social influence to act as "ambassadors" of personal posts.
Historically, Facebook has effectively responded to all potentially negative situations. The company can identify problems, is unafraid to act decisively, and has the talent to tackle issues as needed. The concern is that, for the first time, the company finds itself in a situation where it can do little without taking risks. Behavioural changes mature slowly and when they occur, they can't be altered or controlled quickly.
Undoubtedly, Zuckerberg and his team have the talent, resources, and strategy to try and reverse the issue, but it may not suffice. Over the past 12 years, Western society has learned to act differently due to social connectivity. If the problem actually exists at the suggested scale, it's not something that can be resolved overnight. Given Facebook's significance in the digital industry, this would be a seismic shift in terms of redefining the landscape.