Human beings want attention, almost as much as we want food.
Facebook has exploited that for years, turning most of us into aggressive personal broadcasters, competing for likes and loves for our witty memes, fake news and, naturally, photos of food.
But the party couldn’t go on forever.
When everyone is broadcasting via Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, you don’t get attention, you get constant, deafening noise. A few people break through the cacophony and build steady followings or meaningful communities. But most people simply fade into the wall of noise and then grow tired of the whole process. [This old article from The Onion best captured the futility of it all.].
Factor in the growing sense that social media has degraded democratic discourse. Factor in the sense that we’re pawns in the hands of Facebook and its faceless corporate sponsors. Then factor in the other headaches Facebook faces, such as having presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren on its tail. Change would appear to be coming for the company, one way or another.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg deserves some credit for a bold departure, announcing last week the company’s intention to move to a whole new pasture at a moment when the old pasture still feeds it fairly well. Many leaders in his position would seek to convince shareholders that their pasture will be endlessly green. Zuckerberg instead set the company’s sights on trying to build a new model around its famous weakness, user privacy.
Ultimately, Facebook will stay in the same business—connecting people and building community. And you could argue that it’s been trying for some time (mostly in vain) to promote interactions among family and friends over content from marketers. Either way, it’s choosing to move toward a more intentional, more intimate, smaller-scale approach.
You could say that it’s going from a “high-tech” approach to a more “high-touch” one.
John Naisbitt’s Megatrends is nearly 40 years old, but one of the most important trends Naisbitt identified in 1980 remains constant in this digital era—that new developments in high-tech will create new high-touch opportunities.
Naisbitt was spectacularly prescient, based on a simple intuition about human needs.
That’s why, even though most of us have long had the ability to telecommute, we still show up at offices and congregate around water coolers or Keurigs.
That’s why we pay more now for tickets to premium sporting and musical events than ever before, even though they’re more easily accessible via television or streaming than ever before.
It’s why experts are eye-rollingly wrong in predicting that physical college campuses will die off now that college courses are available online—just as earlier generations of experts wrongly predicted that the post office or movies or television or computers would kill off schools altogether.
We’re social creatures at heart, and we’re made for connecting—the more organic and authentic the connection, the better. And within those connections, we want to be seen, heard and valued. It’s increasingly clear to users that Facebook can’t provide that in its current iteration.
Facebook will certainly never be in the business of bringing people together in living rooms, but it obviously sees an opportunity in helping users move from broadcasting to narrowcasting. As Zuckerberg wrote last week:
Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication. There are a number of reasons for this. Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends.
Many tech experts believe that Zuckerberg is simply trying to follow the lead of China’s WeChat, and to bring that model to a more global audience.
One irony is that Facebook’s pivot comes at the same time that Google is abandoning the consumer version of its Google+ social network, which has at least a superficial similarity to Facebook’s new model. Google+ was more focused on tailored communities—so that grandma wouldn’t see your photos from last night’s party, so that your work colleagues wouldn’t learn about your fascination with the writings of Jordan Peterson, and so on. Yet when Google+ launched in 2011, it lacked the momentum that Facebook already enjoyed, or the simplicity that Facebook offered.
Can Facebook renew itself now and create the dominant social communication platform for the next decade? It’s not a good bet.
“Facebook is trying to seek a balance between a public square and a private space in an increasingly polarizing society,” Ivy Li, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, told the New York Times last week. “The final result could be it will be abandoned by both.”
Still, perhaps Facebook is like Moses: It has its eye on the promised land. It won’t get there itself, but it has pointed the way for others. The Internet’s land of milk and honey represents an intersection of privacy, intimacy and interconnectedness–things that human beings will always crave deeply.
This once again reconfirms the enduring power of the high-touch approach in business and organizational life.