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Is Politics Killing Facebook?

How many times this past month have your heard the following “I hate going on Facebook. It’s all politics, usually from people I barely know, who post eight times a day, either how much they hate Trump or how much they love him. You can’t avoid it. That’s why I’ve been liking Instagram so much better. At least it’s photos, not politics.”

Let’s call that Exhibit A as to why real news may be what does Facebook in, even more effectively than fake news.

Because suddenly what was once a place to show off vacation and baby photos has become the front line of our national political debate. And because it’s social media, there’s no room for shades of gray. Everything is black and white. There’s no “sort of agree” button. No “agree with your first and third points.”  It’s either like, love, shock, laughter or anger. None of which are particularly nuanced responses.

The tone is being set by the national media where, as The Young Turks’ Michael Tracey noted, journalists “compete for who can come up with the wittiest anti-Trump riposte in realtime.”  That tone translates to Facebook, where the most over-the-top condemnations and interpretations of stories from legitimate news sources invariably garner the most likes and comments, as many users begin to treat Facebook as if it were a politically-themed episode of “Black Mirror.”

Is This The Meteor?

Those of us who lived through the 90s remember the way that AOL dominated the internet back in the day. How every ad seemed to end with a call to check out “AOL Keyword Our Product.”

And then one day it seemed like it was all gone, almost overnight, and then there was MySpace for split second and then there was Facebook and nobody could quite tell you what had happened to AOL or why. (I am often surprised that no one has ever written the seminal book about AOL’s fairly rapid demise.)

So despite Facebook’s heralded new pivot to video and Marc Zuckerberg’s call for Facebook to be a force for social good, are we looking at the last moments before the meteor strikes?

It’s quite possible.

If political discourse remains ugly and over the top, those positive vibes and resulting serotonin highs that come from a visit to Facebook, where it’s always someone’s birthday, and there are funny videos of cute animals to like—will quickly disappear and be replaced by exasperation, as your feed becomes filled with someone who you are pretty sure worked with you at your first job sharing how she’s been weeping all day over some random utterance from President Trump, while someone else has framed Trump’s latest tweet inside a flag-themed banner with “Make America Great Again” on it. And you will flee to Instagram where there are still cute puppies and filters that make everyone and everything  look youthful and radiant.

Because when it comes to social media, it’s all about the serotonin.

Emergency Measures Needed

If Facebook = Politics continues to remain a thing, then Facebook will indeed need to take immediate action to prevent a fairly rapid downward spiral. This can be as simple as adjusting the Mighty Algorithm to downplay political stories, or as complex as setting up a completely separate feed for political stories, or anything in between.

But make no mistake: something will need to be done, and if Facebook does not take action, people will start to abandon the platform, slowly at first, spending less time on each visit, then checking the site less than once a day, then maybe just once a week and suddenly everyone’s forgotten why they ever went there, and moved on to the next big thing. In other words, AOL.

Gen Z has already gone there—Snapchat is their platform of choice, and so it’s not much of a stretch to see Millennials, Gen X and Boomers eventually following suit. Probably not to Snapchat but to Instagram or to some other platform that has yet to show up on everyone’s radar.

The political wave has already made Twitter a less pleasant place to be and that’s reflected in their stagnant user numbers and sagging ad revenue. It’s even infected LinkedIn, where the most mundane business story can now take on political overtones and people no longer hesitate to publicly post strong opinions using their real names and occupations.

The Video Out

Video could be what saves Facebook—if Facebook video turns into a pleasant and popular distraction from the divisiveness and strife around us. But that’s a tall order, especially in a medium Facebook has yet to prove their mettle at.

OTOH, if they do manage to do it correctly, to make video the main reason people actually go to Facebook, the question remains will that be enough, will people spend as much time on Facebook as they do now  if there are no more vacation photos and baby pictures to “like” and “love” and “ha-ha” over?

It’s a tall order for Facebook and if they fail, the silver lining (at least for Facebook) is that one of the two platforms that stands to benefit most from their downfall is Instagram, which is, after all, part of the Facebook empire.

But the marquee property is definitely in danger and something needs to be done to fix it pronto.