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Facebook’s ‘TikTok pivot’ is unlikely to win back young users

Facebook’s future, and the value of its ads, may depend on it bringing back younger users. It’s new plan to become more like TikTok probably won’t do it.

Facebook’s ‘TikTok pivot’ is unlikely to win back young users
[Source Photo: Getty]

Facebook is pivoting. Again.

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The Verge‘s Alex Heath reports that top brass at the social giant, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, ordered workers to rejigger the core piece of the Facebook app, the Feed, to look and act more like TikTok’s “For You” page. Not surprisingly, TikTok poses a significant threat to Facebook’s business, and in response Meta (née Facebook) is doing what it always does when it can’t buy a rival: It’s copying them.

Heath reports that Meta wants to begin injecting more of the TikTok-like Reels videos into Facebook users’ Feeds. It also plans to pull its (now separate) Messenger app back into the Facebook app so that it can closely integrate the messaging function with the short videos, like TikTok does. Now it’ll take just one click to message a Reels video to a friend.

It’s the latest play by Meta to attract a new audience to its once-thriving platform. Facebook member growth has been stagnant, and it continues to have trouble attracting young users. Facebook stock has lost 51% of its value so far in 2022. Meanwhile, TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has proven to be an extraordinarily sticky app, and a potential long-term competitor. Internet analytics service Sensor Tower reports that TikTok became only the fifth app to cross 3.5 billion downloads. Last year the app was downloaded 20% more often than Facebook, and 21% more often than Instagram, according to Sensor Tower.

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A new Feed, again

The planned Facebook pivot would change the experience of using the platform. Right now, posts by strangers account for just 10% of content in a person’s Feed, Facebook says. On TikTok, practically all the videos users see come from random strangers. Tom Alison, the Meta executive in charge of Facebook, tells The Verge‘s Heath that Facebook users can expect to see more content from “unconnected” people in their feed, meaning posts by friends and family may show up less frequently.

That’s a dramatic retreat from Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 announcement that Facebook would recalibrate the Feed to feature fewer news stories, in favor of more posts from friends and family.

“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post at the time. “On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos—even if they’re entertaining or informative—may not be as good.”

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One year later, speaking at the F8 conference, Zuckerberg made a similar announcement, saying Facebook was becoming more about private one-to-one or small group communications and less about content that anybody on Facebook can see.

Well, that sentiment didn’t last long.

Let’s also not forget that it was only last year when Facebook rebranded itself as “Meta,” a change meant to signal that the company believes that the future of social networking, and perhaps personal computing in general, will be in the metaverse.

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Now, with the new TikTok pivot, Meta’s sudden shapeshifting is beginning to look like a pattern. The company seems willing to make drastic changes to keep its users from fleeing to other platforms. Only when users are logged in and active on Meta’s apps can the company continue to track their movements and record their interests for the benefit of advertisers. That, of course, is where Meta gets the vast majority of its profits.

Keep them scrolling

Alison told Heath that Facebook’s new challenge is building a so-called “discovery engine”—that is, the algorithm that will decide what Reels video to show next in someone’s feed.

It’s unlikely Facebook can create a short video experience that can truly compete with TikTok anytime soon. TikTok’s superpower is its algorithm’s ability to curate videos on a user’s For You page. The algorithm picks up on a user’s video tastes—how many times they watch a video, what videos they don’t finish, which ones they like or comment on, and a host of other things—to decide what kind of video will yield the best metrics. And it’s deadly good.

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If the plans are real, Meta will have a tough time beating TikTok at its own game. TikTok’s name is synonymous with short, goofy videos with dance steps, “duets,” and endless trends. On a feature by feature basis, Meta’s Reels stands up reasonably well against TikTok. But TikTok’s rise is about much more than features. TikTok has a vibe, one that has a crazy way of bringing the funny out of people. The app has somehow struck a chord with a generation, and that’s something that can’t easily be reverse engineered.

But that won’t stop Facebook from trying. Its discovery engine will likely work in a slightly different way, and will leverage a different set of signal data. Facebook has a lot of experience picking up on signals from users about their interests and wanderings around the web. But suggestion engines aren’t one size fits all; an algorithm that serves social posts or ads is different than one that serves short videos. It will take time for Facebook to get the design of its algorithm, and the mix of signal data, to the point where it can serve up videos as effectively as TikTok’s.

And TikTok has a big head start.

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Shifting politics

If the 2018 Feed change was meant to keep people from passively viewing so much rancorous political content, then the introduction of more Reels might represent a step in the opposite direction.

TikTok’s short video format is often used as a vehicle for political, and often sharply partisan, content. After the leak of the Supreme Court draft majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, for instance, TikTok was flooded with posts by both pro- and anti-abortion proponents. Similarly, TikToks from people on both sides of the gun control debate flourished on the app after the Uvalde school shooting. It’s also not uncommon to see TikTok videos on politically charged subjects that contain misinformation.

A Facebook move toward TikTok-like videos may keep users on the app somewhat longer, but it may also make the app feel less personal, less reliably truthy, more partisan, and more toxic—issues that aren’t exactly foreign to Facebook.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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