EVERY year, Mark Zuckerberg makes a New Year’s resolution, from learning a new language to visiting a new part of the world.
His “personal challenge” this year is telling, however. He wants to “fix” the multibillion-dollar social network currently frustrating users, turning off young people, and linked to poor mental health.
There’s little argument that Facebook is facing unprecedented challenges in 2018.
New research from eMarketer shows it will lose 2 million users under the age of 24 for the first time in its history, and social media experts warn many more people will simply ignore the network or use it less often this year.
Users are “frustrated” with stale, irrelevant content served up by a revamped algorithm that often prioritises the wrong contacts or content, strategists say, and ever-changing privacy settings and technological features that seem to push the boundaries too far.
Facebook appeared to acknowledge its new challenges in its fourth quarter earnings report this year, in which Zuckerberg said its users were growing in number but failing to spend as long on the network.
Zuckerberg says changes to the site’s algorithm prioritising posts from friends and family members were designed to turn the trend around.
But early results show users’ time spent on Facebook fell by “roughly five per cent”.
“In total, we made changes that reduced time on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day,” he says.
The decrease was not expected to be “ongoing,” according to Facebook chief financial officer David Wehner, but it was enough to momentarily spook investors.
But can the changes really save Facebook from becoming another Friendster or MySpace?
Digital media strategist Lee Ussher, from Buzz Web Media, says the changes have “really thrown everyone under the bus a little bit,” and are not achieving what they intended so far.
Facebook users are often missing the posts they want to see, she says, while the algorithm mistakenly delivers popular posts from acquaintances.
“From a personal perspective, with everyday users, I’m feeling their frustration,” she says.
“People are uploading an album of significant moments in their lives and no one is seeing them.
“Not everyone is the sort of person who goes out of their way to learn the features of Facebook and become more strategic about staying connected to their friends.”
One journalist was able to trick the redesigned algorithm into repeatedly sharing a boring six-minute video of a Brooklyn apartment for more than a week, for example. The more people commented on the banality of the video, the more Facebook’s new algorithm deemed it to be “meaningful” and kept it on top of her friends’ news feeds.
Curtin University adjunct senior research fellow Dr Kate Raynes-Goldie says tweaking the algorithm is not going to solve Facebook’s social problems for more reasons than that.
Users are fearful of its constantly creeping privacy boundaries, she says, and its link to depression.
Recent warnings delivered to users about enhanced facial recognition on the social network, for example, have raised questions.
The warnings tell users that Facebook will be “adding more ways to use face recognition” in photos, such as detecting other photos in which you appear, and it’s up to users to turn the feature off — it’s on by default.
Dr Raynes-Goldie says while the warning is surprising, the company has a history of whittling away users’ privacy and handing back some control if it encounters a backlash.
“This is what Facebook has always done. They’ll push boundaries as far as they can in their agenda and take two steps forward, and one step back,” she says.
“People will say, ‘I’m quitting Facebook,’ and then Facebook will say ‘OK, we’re going to step back a little bit’ but still move forward with their strategy.”
But what could hurt the company even more, she says, is research that shows a link between Facebook use and depression.
A longitudinal study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed greater exposure to Facebook could negatively affect a person’s wellbeing, and ‘liking’ other people’s posts led to reduced “physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction”.
“Exposure to the carefully curated images from others’ lives leads to negative self-comparison and the sheer quantity of social media interaction may detract from more meaningful real-life experiences,” the study says.
“Our results suggest that the nature and quality of this sort of connection is no substitute for the real-world interaction we need for a healthy life.”
It’s an issue Zuckerberg seems to address in recent posts that say he wants to ensure Facebook’s “services aren’t just fun to use but also good for people’s wellbeing and for society overall”.
But Raynes-Goldie says overcoming this hurdle could be the social network’s biggest challenge yet.
In striving to get more comments from friends to appease the algorithm, she says, users are “trying to be perfect rather than authentic,” and setting up unrealistic expectations for all users.
“You can’t fix that with an algorithm,” she says. “Users are starting to come to this realisation that becoming healthier and happier tends to involve getting offline.
“No one says ‘I love using Facebook’ any more.”