As 5777 turned into 5778 last night, we suspect that thoughts at the Zuckerberg household were of a better year to come.
These past few months have been tough ones for Facebook, and while they’re mostly just easily-fixed growing pains from a company that expanded beyond its wildest dreams, they can’t be easy for the social network and its founder to live through.
The revelation that Russia (or its agents) bought over $100,000 worth of Facebook ads during the election was bad enough, especially since it was also revealed that Facebook neglected to tell anybody about it.
Now granted, $100,000 worth of Facebook ads isn’t all that much, especially when spread nationally, and we can’t help but note the condescending assumption that most people are too dumb to tell the difference between real and fake news. But that doesn’t negate the optics behind both the Russians trying to influence our election and Facebook letting them.
Especially given the amount of negative press around fake news and Facebook’s role in spreading it.
Because no matter how many initiatives to cut back on fake news Facebook announces, they’ll never get the amount of press that the original fake news stories did. Which means that Facebook has many years of being synonymous with “fake news” to look forward to and all that implies in terms of knee-jerk “brand safety” reactions.
Bigoted Ad Targeting
Just when that story seemed to die down, Facebook got hit with another ad-related bomb: Muckracking media site ProPublica discovered that it was possible to buy Facebook ads targeted at “Jew Haters” or “Ku Klux Klan” supporters.
Subsequent investigation laid the blame on an ad targeting algorithm that allowed users to be targeted by the jobs and/or interests they listed in the “About” section of their profiles. Naively not expecting anyone to actually put “Jew hating” or similar slurs down as an interest, Facebook had not put safeguards in place for when someone went looking for people who identified with those types of hate words. And while COO Sheryl Sandberg quickly issued a mea culpa and vowed to fix the problem, here too, the story will have way more legs than the apology.
Then there’s Watch, Facebook’s first foray into non-live video.
Watch, as we’d noted here previous, is pretty much flying below most people’s radars. The trade press hasn’t given it a whole lot of thought beyond noting that it didn’t have a search function (our number one with a bullet complaint) and that there was nothing on it that looked like it was all that interesting. Our suspicion is that most people outside of the media and tech worlds are blissfully unaware of its existence.
That’s not good for Facebook obviously, as they’ve announced that they are making video the center of their operations going forward. Are Watch’s problems fixable? Of course, especially given Facebook’s massive cash reserves. What we wonder about though is whether people will come back in time for them to fix it: Watch is not solving a problem anyone had or nor is it filling a need—there are plenty of places to watch short form niche videos (e.g., YouTube) and what Facebook needs to do is provide a reason for YouTube users to switch. “If you like YouTube, you’ll like Watch too” isn’t really enough of a reason—YouTube is not a finite resource and Watch doesn’t seem to have anything YouTube doesn’t. (Yet, anyway, as per our point about Facebook’s problems all being eminently fixable with enough cash.)
The As-Yet-Unnamed TV App
Our fear with Facebook is that they’re looking at video from an advertiser-first perspective rather than a user-first perspective. So that their Netflix, ABC and HBO-challenger, as-yet-to-be-named video service is going to feature a lot of niche content of the sort that sounds good to advertisers but doesn’t do a whole lot to draw in viewers. Appealing to advertisers with well targeted niche programming is not a bad way to make money, at least at first, but it doesn’t bode well for long-term success or for building an actual brand. Say what you will about Hulu, the success of A Handmaid’s Tale is going to help cement their reputation as a viable challenger to Netflix, while resulting in millions of dollars of free PR when the trades discuss their next original series.
That’s something Facebook seems to be in danger of forgetting: buzz helps drive tune-in, especially with people who are likely to create even more buzz. A bunch of game shows and documentaries (which is what Facebook is rumored to be putting out there for Round 1) isn’t going to get the kind of buzz needed for anyone to take them seriously.
Which is yet another reason a new network (or digital service that kinda resembles a network) needs to keep buzz in mind: producers of hot series want to sell their shows to networks that have buzz, that have a reputation for being a place for top-quality programming. Now again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, Facebook can make that shift after the fact—AMC did it, so did FX and USA. The good thing about television is that nothing is ever permanent, especially reputation. Especially if you’ve got enough money.
Facebook’s final end-of-5777 problem is Gen Z. Gen Zers don’t hate Facebook, but they are, as the saying goes, just not that into it. That’s why Facebook was recently busted for importing Instagram Stories into Facebook, as the latter’s older-skewing audiences weren’t all that taken by the story thing.
That’s a problem for Facebook in terms of long term growth, and it makes their video strategy that much harder: not only do they have to get Gen Zers to watch video on Facebook, but now they have to get them to Facebook in the first place.
Which makes us wonder if they shouldn’t have launched Watch on the already visually oriented Instagram instead.
Facebook has proven to be resilient and their issues can be chalked up to a sort of sophomore slump following an incredible rookie season.
Given that the mark of a true champion is to get past that sophomore slump, the next year will be critical in whether Facebook can become a long-term player or whether they merely wind up as AOL 2.0.