If you’ve been on social media in recent weeks, you’ve likely heard or seen gripes about changes tech giant Meta made to its platforms Instagram and Facebook.
Specifically, users are quite upset about changes that make it less likely they’ll see posts from friends and family on their news feeds, and more likely they’ll see content made by strangers. The latter content is recommended to users based on an algorithm.
Earlier this week, Kim Kardashian and her sister Kylie Jenner threw gasoline on the fire by sharing posts imploring Meta to stop “trying to be” TikTok, a platform centered around recommended videos. The posts said the two “just want to see cute photos of my friends.” But it’s past time to come to terms with reality: That’s not happening anytime soon. And the reason is pretty obvious. TikTok is an extremely successful platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. Meta (the parent company of Facebook) became the corporate behemoth it is by copying things other successful tech companies do. And when it comes to algorithm-centered content, TikTok isn’t even an originator. To be sure, Meta has been at that game longer — but TikTok is doing it better in many ways, and users seem to enjoy it (at least, for now).
Today’s social media platforms rely heavily on recommended content to make money. Being able to take users’ personal data and use it to target them with content (particularly, ads) is the business model for virtually every social media platform in existence. I think of this as the “mind control economy,” because it’s based on companies nudging users to do things — like watch a video or buy a shirt — that they may not have otherwise done, and for profit.
Technologists have criticized this economy for years, but Facebook is showing no signs of stopping it. (And the same applies to other social media platforms.)
In a video posted Monday, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri admitted users’ gripes about unwanted videos in their news feed shows the company is doing a “bad job” with its recommendations algorithms.
But he vowed to “continue to try getting better at recommendations,” claiming algorithm-based content is better “particularly for small creators.” That’s just fluff, so I’ll put it in layman’s terms: “Kick rocks if you think we’re going to stop recommending videos to you. This stuff makes money!”
If those remarks weren’t clear enough proof Meta is all-in on the mind control economy, note that the company is currently airing commercials promoting its personalized ad business. That is, the business that relies on all those recommended posts users hate. I think the strategy here might be a bit confusing to people who don’t know the company’s long-term goals.
After all, why would Meta keep doing something its users claim to despise?
One answer is that higher-ups like Mosseri say that evidence shows users may be less conscious of their social media habits than they suggest. Another answer could be that Meta is transforming from a traditional social media company into a virtual reality — or “metaverse”-based — company. The things it does to modify and maintain its traditional social media platforms are, in my view, just a bridge carrying the company into that period, which could be a few years out.
And if that means the company pursues some unpopular features that are shown to make money —in their view, so be it.