Meta Is Making Product Decisions For An Internet That Doesn’t Exist Anymore
It might be hard to remember back that far, but Facebook used to be a place where people made content. In the early 2010s, it felt like there was a new viral post or video or story coming out of Facebook that made the news or did the rounds on morning talk shows. There were probably a few viral challenges or trending memes that popped up on the app after the Ice Bucket Challenge in the summer of 2014, but it was definitely the peak for Facebook-born viral moments and, basically, after that, there really wasn’t another massive internet trend to surface organically on the platform. Unless you count the January 6th Insurrection.
People didn’t leave Facebook, but it evolved into something closer to the internet’s comment section than a traditional user-generated content platform like, say, Reddit. It was a place for talking about and sharing content made elsewhere. And Instagram, though a wholly different app with an extremely different user demographic, has had a similar trajectory. It was first a place to share your cool photos of brunch or a fun house party you went to, then it was a place to look at celebrities and people who think they’re celebrities, and then, by 2018, it had become synonymous with “meme pages,” which were mostly just screenshots of tweets.
Meta, the company than owns both apps, has, over the years, continued to double down on the idea that users want to post life updates, “friend” or “follow” people in their immediate local and familial social networks, and have it all swirled together with algorithmically recommended content. That’s the core Meta experience: Your posts, your parents’ posts, updates form people who live near you, some influencers, some celebrities, some viral content, and a whole bunch of ads for Away bags. The two apps have “tweaked” their feeds to offer a different ratio of those things over the years — sometimes there’s more news content, sometimes there’s more video, sometimes there’s more local updates, etc. — but the recipe has stayed the same. What’s interesting is this is absolutely not true for anywhere else on the internet.
As Meta has planted its feet firmly where they are, the online experience has moved in two different directions simultaneously. There is your local internet, made up of group chats, mega messengers like WhatsApp and Telegram, and ephemeral content platforms like Snapchat or Instagram Stories, and there’s the public internet, which, for most people, is sort of consumed like Netflix. You scroll through your TikTok feed, your YouTube feed, or your Twitch feed, and maybe you’re compelled to make a video or start a little project, but you’d be pretty surprised if updates from your grandma showed up there (unless you have a super cool grandma, I guess). And, at first, this wasn’t a problem for Meta. The thinking was that every other app didn’t merge the private and the public in the same feed because that’s what Meta did. Assuredly, no one could compete. Except, over the last few months, Meta has rolled out updates to both Facebook and Instagram that seem to be acknowledging a very different reality for the company: TikTok won.
First, Instagram announced that it was tweaking the news feed experience to prioritize Reels content from creators. Then Instagram said that it was experimenting with displaying all video content on the app in a Reel. This, in effect, has given Instagram a user experience extremely similar to the one people have on TikTok.
Then, last week, I wrote about how Facebook’s news feed will be making a similar shift. The company announced that it was giving users a “a chronological feed of posts from those you follow,” but it was hiding it behind a secondary tab. The homepage of Facebook will now also offer a TikTok-like experience, as well, prioritizing personalized recommendations of video content from creators.
Then, over the weekend, Meta’s war on TikTok was taken a step further. The Verge reported that public Instagram content will be “remixable” by default. Public photos on the app can be pulled seamlessly into Reels. It’s obvious that this is Meta’s attempt at competing with TikTok’s fairly revolutionary “duet” feature, which allows videos to be pulled into other videos, like you would a quote tweet or a reblog. But the fact that Instagram has set remixes as the default is already causing chaos on the app. Photographers, in particular, are not happy about this, but the feature also seems tailor-made to abuse and harass people. One person told me they’ve already seen the feature being used to populate a catfish account.
Meta seems to have correctly identified what people like about TikTok — short-form videos, remixable video and audio editing tools that works on mobile, and creators that make stuff rather than influence things — but they’re still trying to jam those features into an ecosystem that wasn’t built for them. Namely, Meta doesn’t have an app that anyone makes stuff for anymore. Not in a way that could meaningfully compete with TikTok’s completely democratized and seemingly-infinite army of (unpaid) creators who are ready and willing to jump on whatever’s trending.
In fact, let’s play a little thought experiment. If you wanted to take out your phone and either snap a picture or record a video and have it be seen by as many people as humanly possible, where would you upload it? Depending on how you use the internet, I’m sure there’s a couple of apps that just cycled through your head. But I’m going to guess Facebook was not anywhere near the top of that list. And I’m going to guess that if Instagram was on that list, it’s not nearly as high up on it as it would have been if we had done that experiment three or four years ago.
I wrote about this back in January, but, unlike, say, YouTube which plastered their community’s biggest faces all over billboards and subway ads or TikTok, which was already hosting panels with their top creators at VidCons before the pandemic, Meta seems to actively despise the people who make content on their platforms. Unless they’re already celebrities, their creators don’t appear in Facebook’s ads, they don’t do panels together at conferences, and they don’t pop up in press releases or demo new features.
At best Meta seems embarrassed of the people who make the content that keeps users on their apps. Or, at worst, they seem to hate them. There’s really no other explanation. Creators I’ve spoken to have described a deeply precarious existence in which they have to constantly adjust how they create content by trying to divine what each new algorithmic tweak might mean for how their posts show up in other people’s feeds. They live in constant fear of their pages being “disappeared” for some weird infraction. It sounds like a nightmare. The women eating out of toilets on Facebook aren’t eating out toilets because they like doing it. They’re eating out of toilets because Facebook’s insanely aggressive recommendation engine has pushed their content to ludicrous extremes because it’s constantly over-optimizing its own users. And because TikTok has redefined how social media works and left Meta completely unprepared for a future that’s quickly approaching, they want you eating out of toilets, but, now, it has to be in a Reel.
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Tokens Aren’t Anything
Tascha Che, a Web3 evangelist, published a thread yesterday titled, “35 business ideas of how web3 could improve or disrupt the most successful companies” and it’s, uh, interesting. You can click here to scroll through it, but Che’s main idea is that companies like Pepsi, Meta, Costco, and Netflix can use crypto tokens as a way to function as stakeholders in various products and services they use. It’s a similar idea to one floated by Elle Griffin in Esquire last week. Griffin wrote:
What if the book series functioned like a publicly traded company where individuals could “buy stock” in it, and as the franchise grows, those “stocks” become more valuable? If this were the case, someone who purchased just three percent of Harry Potter back when there was only one book would be a billionaire now.
Interestingly enough, Griffin seems to have written this as if this would be a good thing and not a horrifying nightmare world. But the crypto community tends to workshop different ideas like this out in the open and I think it’s worth paying attention to what kind of spaghetti they’re throwing against the wall. Right now, it’s all about tokens.
If you still don’t know what a token is, that’s fine. In most cases, Web3 people use it as like you would a share of a stock. Typically, you’d launch a project and make a token for it, people buy your token, the more tokens someone owns, the more voting power or influence they might have in the project.
Look, I’ve tried to balance out my genuine interest about Web3 with a decent amount of skepticism, but, man, I’m sorry. There’s just no way anyone is going to do this. No one wants to set up a crypto wallet and buy tokens to help Pepsi make new soda or help someone write young adult fiction. I mean, have you SEEN what YA fans do to each other?
Anyways, one more crypto thing before we move on. Remember in April, when I wrote that popular crypto Twitter account @cobie had noticed some very, very interesting activity happening around Coinbase? Well, it seems like the SEC noticed, as well.
The Anatomy Of A Hype Cycle
I’ve developed something close to an anthropological fascination with fans of the DC Entertainment Universe following all the Snyder Cut stuff. I’m in a bunch of their subreddits and it just seems like such a dire place to be right now. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I think I can quickly catch you up to speed. Zach Snyder was making a grimdark interconnected film universe for DC Comics. Snyder didn’t get to finish directing his Justice League due to a family tragedy, Warner Bros. screwed up and brought in Joss Whedon to finish it, fans hated the movie, petitioned for Snyder to finish his version of it, some bots helped too, and then Snyder finally released his four-hour cut. It was better than expected. But subsequent DC movies based on Snyder’s original blueprint began spinning out into chaos. Ezra Miller’s Flash movie is coming out, but with Miller being accused of grooming and kidnapping, it’s unlikely there will be more Flash movies in the immediate future. And Amber Heard is still meant to be in the Aquaman sequel, but misogynist DC fans have totally turned on her and are blaming her legal battle against Johnny Depp for putting their little talking fish movie in jeopardy
Well, on July 20, Deadline wrote a piece rounding up rumors about what might be getting announced at San Diego Comic Con, which was this weekend. The Deadline report had one sentence that set the DC fandom on fire: “There’s also buzz that Henry Cavill will put in a surprise appearance to talk up more Superman.” Cavill played Superman in Snyder’s DC movies. And, safe to say, Cavill didn’t show up and the DCEU subreddits are an absolute dumpster fire right now.
Fans literally booed The Rock on stage! It’s wild. But I also think it’s a good example of how fandoms for these kinds of franchises are living and breathing entities that are trained to look for breadcrumbs like this. There are no incentives to not get hyped up and if a company like DC doesn’t know how to get ahead of this kind of thing or direct this kind of energy it’s going to blow up in their faces.
In fact, just today, fans started a Reddit thread claiming that it’s not Cavill who doesn’t want to be Superman, but Warner Bros. Excited to see how toxic this gets!
Why Do People On TikTok Talk Like This?
I think one of the things that interests me the most about TikTok is how it reveals how normal people have internalized internet trends over the last decade. Let me explain.
Before the pandemic, we were all, obviously, looking at internet content pretty much all the time, but there was this bizarre unspoken agreement that we did not acknowledge that irl. Even though our understanding of both culture and politics has been completely warped by the internet since at least 2015, we continued to operate as if our world was still shaped by TV shows and cable news and movies and radio. The pandemic finally forced people to stop acting like the 90s were only 10 years ago and now we live in a world where the internet is, arguably, the prime layer of reality and the physical world is a byproduct of what we post online. And TikTok is, increasingly, the public square of this new era. And what’s super fascinating is we’re seeing how normal people, people who may still not identify as super online (whatever that means anymore), interpret how to behave on the internet.
That’s big long-winded way of saying, TikTok is actually our first look at how one-and-a-half generations of young people raised on YouTube reaction videos act when the camera is suddenly pointed at them. Which may explain the weird overly-performative behavior that one Twitter user called “suburban sensationalism,” which you can see in the video below:
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Cursed Oyster Mascot
And, in case you’re wondering, the oyster knows it’s gone viral.
Some Stray Links
“The Secret History Of The Internet’s Funniest Buzzer-Beater”
P.S. here’s an absolutely unhinged Golden Girls video.
***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***
The number one thing that would make me open FB more often than when I run out of content everywhere else is just letting me have a chronological timeline again, the way Twitter and Tumblr do. I’m 40, most of my RL friends and family are on there, and I’d actually like to keep up with what people are doing, but since I get served a weird salad of 3 day old photos, ads, and random articles it thinks I’d like, I always give up after a few minutes and close it.
I know the girl in the “suburban sensationalism” video. It’s probably safe to say that she is surrounded by people who are melodramatic and attention seeking in real life. She has a distorted sense of normal human expression and that’s why these videos are so insane.