Facebook defined how content would be served up to users. Then along came TikTok and rewrote the rules. Making it the most addictive social network on the planet, stealing Facebook's lunch along the way. Now, The Verge has got its hands on a memo that shows exactly how worried they are.
Facebook Looking Over Its Shoulder
Back Story: If you can’t beat them, join them. That's the message from the new Head of Facebook about TikTok. But I see nothing but danger from switching from a "network" led feed to a "discovery" based one!
Facebook are worried by TikTok
When a CEO mentions a major competitor one time too many on an earnings call, it signals exactly how worried they are. That’s the case with MetaFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok. This was around the same time that The Washington Post reported how Facebook hired a PR firm to spread misinformation about TikTok.
On the earnings call, Zuckerberg also signalled the shifting focus for Facebook when he reported that half the time people spend on Facebook is watching video.
Now, The Verge has got their investigative hands on a so-called leaked memo from the exec who took over running Facebook last year when Zuck rebranded to Meta. It’s a “if you can’t beat them, join them” call to change the way Facebook works to be more like TikTok.
Facebook's Chief, Tim Alison makes the case in the all-hands memo for change in the way that Facebook serves up content to its users. (The so-called "leaked memo" was a broadcast to all staff that was quickly followed by an interview with The Verge...the "leak" sounds a bit contrived to me.)
Here's a copy of the memo (from The Verge story) that I have annotated, highlighting relevant bits and adding a few comments of my own...👇
Being more like TikTok
Here's the thing: A Facebook feed is primarily driven by the user’s network of friends, family, contacts and groups they follow. Only about 11% of content in Facebook’s main feed is unconnected to a user’s network (according to Facebook own data).
Whereas TikTok has none of that. You can have no friends on TikTok but still be fed a diet of content that keeps you engaged and online.
Because TikTok decides what to serve you up based on what you REALLY REALLY like to see, not what your network wants to see.
It collects 100s of signals in a very short space of time that gets under your skin. Once it’s got the measure of you (in about 15 mins), the app will keep giving you what your want, and you won’t have to put up with all the fake news nonsense that uncle John or auntie Mary keep posting.
TikTok have changed the game that Facebook defined
The Point Is: TikTok has redefined Facebook’s idea of a social media feed. The question is: can Facebook play catch-up before it’s too late?
The stakes are arguably high, especially now that the Zuck is taking the company in different directions. One way is holding onto the domination (and cash cow) of the Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp empire. The other is building a new business built for the Metaverse.
But the stakes are larger now than when Facebook last had to watch its back, when they imitated Snapchat who were snapping at their heels. Now, TikTok is a much more formidable foe! Facebook is also concerned about a user base that is steadily ageing.
If that wasn't enough, investors are doubting Meta’s ability to navigate this dual path whilst there are challenges to its ads business that drives the Facebook’s revenues. Facebook lost users for the first time ever at the end of last year. Around the same time, Facebook's CFO said that Apple’s privacy changes were forecast to cost $10 billion in lost revenue.
And with its stock price already battered, the company needs to show that it can grow if Zuckerberg wants to keep funding his metaverse vision.
What are Facebook going to do about it?
The Switch Up: The conclusion from the memo is that Facebook’s executives felt they weren't doing enough to compete with TikTok. So they've decided to switch up the feed.
Instead of prioritising posts from accounts people follow, Facebook's main feed will, like TikTok, aggressively encourage posts from anywhere.
This is the so-called shift to “discovery mode”. Facebook will now put more emphasis on finding content based on a users preferences than on a user’s network.
Also, Messenger and Facebook will be merged, replicating TikTok's chat capability.
Years after Messenger and Facebook were up into separate apps, the two will be brought back together, mimicking TikTok’s messaging functionality. Facebook is working on placing a user’s Messenger inbox at the top right of the app, undoing the infamous decision to separate the two apps eight years ago.
The planned modifications demonstrate how Meta is responding to the rise of TikTok, a serious competitor to its social media supremacy. Instagram already resembles TikTok with its concentration on Reels, but officials think a similar treatment to Facebook could reverse the app's slow growth and bring back young people.
Instagram is already well ahead of Facebook in its push to show more Reels from accounts you don’t follow, or what the company calls “unconnected” sources.
Can Facebook become like TikTok before TikTok becomes more like Facebook?
It's a race: Meta sees TikTok as increasingly encroaching on its home turf of social networking.
The last major overhaul of the Facebook feed experience was in 2018 when Zuckerberg said the social network would prioritize “meaningful social interactions” between friends and family.
“Stories is really the way that more people are sharing with their friends,” says Tom Alison, head of the Facebook app. Alison insists that the discovery engine idea is not the radical pivot for Facebook that it sounds like.
What's clear from the leaked docs is that to some current and former employees, this new direction feels like Facebook is moving away from its main purpose of connecting friends and family.
Alison responded in the leaked memo by saying, "The risk for us is if we ignore this as a means of social communication and connection ...and fail to grow."
This is why Alison and the Facebook exec see the solution is to make the social network more of a "discovery engine." This was a concept highlighted by Zuckerberg during Meta's last earnings call.
Facebook tells its employees to make the app's feed more like TikTok
Since the publication: Alison subsequently told The Verge that the corporation was slow to perceive TikTok's competitive threat, even as it developed through advertising on Facebook and Instagram.
Now, Meta sees the video app intruding on its home turf of social networking, with Alison pointing to TikTok's increased private messaging and dedicated tab for viewing friends' videos.
“We didn't realise how sociable this format could be,” Tim Alison said about TikTok and their short form video format.
The future for the Facebook app will show video feeds, called Stories and Reels, more prominently at the top, followed by content recommended by Facebook and Instagram's discovery engine.
Facebook will become more visual and video-heavy, with clearer messaging prompts. Facebook is aiming to place a user's Messenger inbox at the top right of the app, reversing an 8-year-old decision to divide the two.
Instagram is ahead of Facebook in its push to show more Reels from "unconnected" sources. Only roughly 11% of Facebook's main feed is disconnected, the firm says, and those messages have primarily appeared through reshares, not AI.
What’s clear from The Verge investigation is that Meta recognises it must recreate TikTok's "For You" page to compete.
Remember, it was only a decade ago that Facebook’s News Feed pioneered the social feed that learnt from signals in a network. TikTok upended that by taking signals from the user themselves.
TikTok have shown that the AI can more accurately predict what users enjoy based on their passive viewing patterns rather than on their network’s content.
The TikTok effect has been to level the playing field for creators by removing the requirement to follow accounts to discover fascinating videos, allowing them to go popular without a significant following. (Just see the impact of TikTok on the music industry for evidence of this in action!)
TikTok, which is owned by the private Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance, has been downloaded a whopping 3.6 billion times, according to the mobile app research firm Sensor Tower. Per its estimates, last year, TikTok’s downloads were 20% higher than Facebook’s and 21% higher than Instagram’s.
And during the first three months of this year, iPhone users, on average, spent 78% more time on TikTok than on Facebook.
In 2021, US users spent an average of 26 hours a month on TikTok. That's up from 8 hours a month in 4 years!
Facebook still makes $billions per quarter and has 2.94 billion monthly users. Its best days may be over. But it’s still a dominant force and Zuckerberg has shown himself to be a very astute business leader. Where MetaFacebook go from here is going to be interesting to see!
There's danger in the new Facebook Discovery model
Here's the thing: The way Facebook decides what content a user sees in their feed is completely different to the way that TikTok decides what videos to serve up. And TikTok is proving to be a better (more addictive) model!
Whilst most commentators have focused on the "lets copy TikTok" angle of this story, for me, there's another issue at hand.
In the decade since Facebook changed the priority of content, putting greater emphasis on what Uncle Peter and Auntie Mary "think" over the journalism of main stream media, Facebook has become a major source of misinformation leading to societal division, the undermining of democracy and a marked increase in harm amongst young people.
Which means that: I see danger in this shift to the way Facebook's algorithms will work.
It is already remarkably easy for bad actors to use the advertising business model to influence unsuspecting Facebookers.
It is also remarkably easy for Uncle Peter's preposterous views on the 2020 election, the European Union or people with different coloured skin to proliferate. Remember that today, anyone's thoughts and opinions are contained within the reach of their network. It only goes viral when it starts spreading amongst friends of friends.
But in this new "discovery" model, influencers (which you can replace with "people with an agenda") will have greater access to the masses (because "content" will be spread based on a specific users interests.
If someone is racist, the racist content on Facebook will find them!
Big Tech Little Tech Podcast
Join the 115,000+ fellow professionals who follow me across Social Media for Insights and Information from the Tech Economy.
I'm most active on Linkedin...
...co-host a Podcast called Big Tech Little Tech...
...have a YouTube channel...
...occasionally I hang out on Twitter...
...and I also write on Medium...
...and am figuring out how to make it work on Reddit.