#Asia Zuckerberg needs to re-energise apathetic user base


Toxic conversations in a testy global political environment do not arouse emotions — it just leads to boredom


After the US Presidential election, Facebook has found itself at a crossroads.

The proliferation of ‘fake news‘ and the general public coming to terms with ‘social bubbles’ has stained the company’s reputation as a source for discovering an accurate picture of what is happening in this crazy world of ours.

Consumers across the world are struggling to decipher good media vs. bad media and it has become a major global talking point.

For example, in just a few short months the term ‘fake news’ has devolved into a cop-out that the powerful use to discredit any report they find unflattering.

Just today, TechCrunch reported the Facebook is censoring posts in Thailand upon request of the government.

To give credit to Facebook, they are clearly aware of the situation. Recently, the company hired former CNN Anchor Campbell Brown to head its media relations initiative (which, in the current situation, is not a Public Relations gig, but rather a job that requires a transformation of its distribution strategy).

The company released a public blog post detailing how it plans to better serve companies that are doing their best to report accurate, informative and truthful stories.

While the blog post was a positive step (especially the renewed focus on local news), Facebook still fell into the same traps. It continues to put its Live feature above everything else and proudly announced a partnership with an algorithmic company called CrowdTangle to help surface news based on metrics. The problem here is that this was the same strategy those fake news sites used so successfully.

Also Read: Facebook slowly becomes most powerful media company in the world

It is still mid-January, and it will be impossible to predict the biggest shifts in the global community in 2017, but it is fairly obvious that social media will see increased scrutiny over the next twelve months. Facebook, as king of the hill, will be the target for the bulk of the criticisms.

At least, it seems, Zuckerberg is aware of this fact.

Now for the opinion

For companies and businesses, it is time to think of alternative distribution and marketing channels besides Facebook. The ‘bang for the buck’ is not worth the investment, and Facebook engagement is increasingly either passive or antagonistic.

Do not ‘give up’ on Facebook just yet — there will be 2 billion people on the platform this year — but do lower your expectations (and perhaps the funds earmarked in the marketing budget for the platform).

No company has really come close to knocking off Facebook as the ‘king of social media‘, but as the days go by, it’s becoming a kingdom with an increasingly less enthusiastic population.

Why did this happen?

In reaction to recent events, people have rejected Facebook as a medium for useful discussion and participation.

Let’s call it a hypothesis, because it is based on that ever elusive metric called ‘feel’, but the months leading up to the US Presidential Election were filled with so much vitriol, anger and arrogance that, when the dust was settled, people were “over it”.

Even in Asia, which has its own polarising issues, those who spoke their opinion were either preaching to the choir (which gets boring) or were overwhelmed by an army of trolls (also boring).

This phenomenon gets exacerbated by the subtle long-term shift in how people use Facebook. To use myself for example, I think I have actually met in-person about half of my “friends”. Of the people I have met, the relationship of a vast majority of them has not extended beyond a handshake and some small talk.

For the people that I would consider positive real-life relationships, a lot of them are colleagues — meaning the people I might consider ‘random’ friends (in the primary school sense of the word) is very small.

Am I really going to say my more provocative (and thus interesting) opinions in this community? No, of course not.

Final point, I work at a media startup, and as long as it isn’t ridiculous/sexist/racist, I can basically say whatever I want on social media. Most companies are not like this — and if they claim to be, there is a difference between official policies and work place ostracisation.

Because of these factors, we are now entering a correction period. The years from about 2011-2015, we could call the ‘bubble’ of social media. Everyone was on it and people began to replace person-to-person conversations with social media discussions.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Social media has an amazing power to engage people of interesting backgrounds with those they would never be able to reach.

Also Read: Wake up call: The nefarious future of Facebook

Now, the perception is that society went overboard. And rather than incite long, divisive, social discussions online, it is moving offline.

We are rediscovering an old truth: It is perfectly reasonable to argue with someone in person and come away feeling positive. This truth does not apply to the internet.

Now, so as not to build a straw man, Facebook’s user data would not support my theory. Nasdaq, a reputable ‘real news’ organisation, expects Facebook to cross 2 billion users in 2017. However, as the Wall Street Journal reported in November, its advertising revenue growth numbers are expected to slow in the months ahead.

This is why I used the words ‘hypothesis’ and ‘feel’. Facebook is still a behemoth, but there is a cultural shift in people’s perception of the product.

Lagging enthusiasm

As an American living in Singapore, I am a bit lucky in the sense that I consistently visit the US while also work and operate in a Singaporean culture.

In the US, those who are on Facebook rarely post updates, do not check-in often and, in way too many cases, are actually dead. Teenagers view Facebook as the “place my parents hang out”, and amongst American millennials, asking someone to “add me on Facebook” is awkward.

It’s a cultural difference, but Facebook in the US is, to put it bluntly, kinda lame.

The numbers back this up.

In North America, Facebook is flatlining, according to Statistica. Its growth in the US and Canada was 7 million over Q1-Q3 2016, and the company has 229 million users in the two countries. By comparison, the admittedly much larger APAC region has 408 million users  — but also added nearly 50 million users between 2015 and 2016.

Also Read: Singapore government to adopt Facebook Workplace across the board

Facebook has been passé in the US for awhile now, so what is justifying this article? A sense that the trend is starting to shift in Asia as well (at least in Singapore).

In the last few months, those people that used to post once or twice a week have completely disappeared. Whether it is for the reasons outlined above or other justifications (WeChat comes to mind), people simply are not posting their ‘random thoughts’ anymore.

Feeds are largely driven by the ‘hardcores’ who post multiple times a day (that is not a disparaging comment, I actually rather enjoy it most of the time) and ‘personal branders’ whose livelihoods depend on being fairly public (I would probably fall into this category).

The third category is media and company advertisements, and if companies truly want to stay ahead in this ever-changing landscape, they will too disappear because now is the time to move beyond Facebook and find alternative, creative, distribution networks.

Facebook is far from dying, and it would be wise to give it the benefit of the doubt. But no tech giant is at a more important crossroads in 2017. Facebook will be forced to make significant changes in the coming year.

If it can re-energise its user base, 2017 could be a huge year for the company. If Zuckerberg can’t figure it out? We will have to wait and see.


Featured Image Copyright: antbphotos / 123RF Stock Photo

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