During an earnings call in late January, Mark Zuckerberg surprised everyone by saying people spending less time on Facebook is a good thing. Moreover, time spent on Facebook will likely continue to decrease as the company implements further changes to the platform over the next year.
It was a startling remark by the CEO of a company that makes money almost exclusively from advertising, but his message was simple: quality over quantity.
The tech media’s response was predictable. Zuckerberg was doing a PR spin on bad numbers. Facebook made bad choices and was reaping the consequences. People don’t trust Facebook anymore. Of course people use Facebook less, Facebook is just boring now.
Here’s a crazy idea: What if Facebook actually is trying to be better?
Is it so unreasonable to believe that – after fake news entered the common lexicon – Facebook has seen the dark side to its power and ubiquity? That it’s willing to put aside some temporary ad revenue in order to ensure it has a positive influence going forward?
As a general rule, the cynicism of modern tech journalism brushes that possibility aside. Apparently, everything the big companies do makes us depressed, threatens our privacy, or poses a security hazard. Read a few thinkpieces per week and you’d be convinced the tech industry is banding together to make the world a worse place.
It wasn’t always this way. As Martin Bryant – TNW’s former Editor in Chief – puts it, tech journalism used to fawn over companies in a combination of naive optimism and a battle for access. That lack of accountability on the media’s end helped enable some of the tech industry’s worst behavior.
In response, the tech media became more skeptical and critical, but also tends to overcompensate, creating a negative narrative that is often at odds with the perspective of people actually using tech products.
Which brings us back to Facebook. The social media juggernaut has made ethically questionable choices over the years, operating with a business model basically designed to maximize addiction. But lately, after the 2016 election in particular, Facebook seems to be listening:
- Zuckerberg wrote a 5,700 word manifesto to clarify his position on the impact he wants Facebook to have on the world.
- Facebook has partnered with fact-checking organizations and tested various methods for limiting and highlighting fake news
- The company has begun to deprioritize publishers in the News Feed to make way for more content from your friends and family
- The News Feed has been rejigged several times to limit the effectiveness of clickbait.
- Facebook is surveying users on the publishers they trust most
- Facebook’s implementing a system to disclose political ads on its platform
- News Feed changes mean people are spending 50 million fewer hours on the platform
- The company is exploring more personal post formats
These are just a few examples, but company has been criticized at each stage.
Scrutiny remains important, and no one’s saying Facebook couldn’t do more. But if we tech journalists want our criticism to actually affect matter and affect change, it’s just as important to acknowledge when progress is happening. Fundamentally changing a product as massive as Facebook won’t happen overnight.
It’s not unreasonable to think Zuckerberg (and most of his employees) are genuinely working to make Facebook better. In an interview with the New York Times in January, the CEO said: “It’s important to me that when Max and August grow up that they feel like what their father built was good for the world.”
Even considering business motives behind the change – long-term loyalty vs short-term revenue, for instance – these aren’t mutually exclusive with a better Facebook.
Facebook is Zuckerberg’s legacy – the reason he’ll be in history books. Two paths lie ahead of him: he could be remembered as a man who enabled technological mass addiction, depression and indoctrination on a global scale, or he could also be the man who achieved his goal of connecting the world and creating a global community.
I know I’d be fighting for the latter.