Both Instagram and Facebook have announced changes that suggest they view the threat of TikTok as existential (Photos of Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Getty Images, additional design: Tina Tiller)
Both Instagram and Facebook have announced changes that suggest they view the threat of TikTok as existential (Photos of Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Getty Images, additional design: Tina Tiller)

MediaAugust 1, 2022

Do Facebook and Instagram even know what they want to be any more?

Both Instagram and Facebook have announced changes that suggest they view the threat of TikTok as existential (Photos of Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Getty Images, additional design: Tina Tiller)
Both Instagram and Facebook have announced changes that suggest they view the threat of TikTok as existential (Photos of Instagram head Adam Mosseri and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Getty Images, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Two writers try to make sense of radical and very swift change to the world’s most influential platforms.

Instagram has begun massively changing the experience for its users, the kinds of content they’re served and where that content can come from. In the coming months Meta’s other advertising giant, Facebook, will do the same. It’s the biggest change to our biggest social media platforms since they were founded, and it doesn’t feel like we’re talking about it anywhere near enough. The Spinoff founder Duncan Greive and The Bulletin editor (and veteran of brand social media) Anna Rawhiti-Connell exchanged a series of freaked out emails to try and make sense of a world-changing event that we’re sleep-walking into.

DUNCAN: This feels like the end of social networking as we know it

I keep starting, then deleting, my opening sentence, because what I’m about to say seems too ridiculous to type. What I want to write is “Anna, I think social media is about to change in a really profound way that will impact all of us, and we’re not really thinking through what that might mean for society”.

It’s ridiculous because a) the internet changes every day, and the most profound shifts tend to come glacially based on trends or the sharp rise of new products – ie, they’re not viewable in advance. And b) because it sounds hyperbolic, and I’m acutely conscious that the trad media (of which The Spinoff is unavoidably a part, even though we’re younger than Insta or Snap) has been making these pronouncements for years. 

But… maybe this time is different, and there really is a wolf! I’m talking about the change that Facebook is flagging to follow Instagram in brazenly copying TikTok to make its product more about “discovery” than “the social graph”. This means relegating friends and family to a subsidiary tab and therefore allowing content, particularly short form video, to go viral from anywhere in the world, rather than being largely limited to your own networks. 

Axios last week called it “the end of the social networking era”, and it really does feel like that. As someone who worked in social for more than a decade (which is… almost the whole history of professional social media in this country), what do you make of it all? Why is it happening and what’s the biggest impact flowing out of it that you foresee?

ANNA: TikTok is a black hole

The only thing I’ve really felt confident saying or predicting in the last year or so, and no earlier than a lot of people who are old social media hacks and write about this stuff, is that TikTok is a black hole. It has consumed almost every feature of every social media app, every genre of content and every cultural phenomena and movement. And done it better than all of its predecessors. 

That is really what’s happening here with the huge changes Facebook is making to its newsfeed. Zuckerberg and his execs are bricking it about this juggernaut, so doing what they do best and attempting to mimic what they see as its core functionality – short form algorithmic video discovery. The newsfeed is going to change in a way that fundamentally breaks apart what Facebook has been known for, but kind of biffed in the last few years as a core function: connecting with friends and family. 

Instagram tested a full-screen home feed but after howls of protest, rolled the change back. (Image: Instagram)

It’s now a swirl of your aunts, misinformation, comments, discovery content from famous people or influencers plus many, many ads. Instagram has borked it too. No one I know has a good word to say about using Instagram right now, and its most famous and popular users have been very vocal about how much they hate recent changes. We might be sending freaked out emails, but Instagram chief Adam Mosseri is making freaked out videos in response to the heat and announced late last week that they were walking them back as they “figure out how we want to move forward”. Platformer’s Casey Newton interviewed Mosseri about the abrupt reversal. His main question: is there actually any core vision remaining at Instagram?

For Facebook users, you will now have a “home” tab full of algorithmically determined video and a secondary tab which they say will offer you a chronological feed of updates from friends, groups and pages. They’ve tried this tab splitting before and it’s never worked. I think they’ve fundamentally misread how far away Facebook and Instagram have drifted from being networks where people create things. 

Meta has correctly identified what works about TikTok but missed so much of what makes TikTok a behemoth. TikTok is so open, it’s scary. The smartest and arguably most steroidal move TikTok made was to make content so sharable that most people’s Instagram feeds are shared TikToks. 

Meta has always kept Facebook and Instagram locked because that’s how you retain eyeballs to sell to advertisers. TikTok doesn’t need to keep things locked because they started as a creator network for passive consumption, so that was baked in as a core purpose. Meta is now trying to jam that into a network that isn’t built for it or even regarded as a place where you want to passively consume content.

DUNCAN: What’s Meta’s game here?

The thing I keep coming back to is that it has been years since Facebook lost its cultural cachet. Instagram stopped feeling like the coming thing as soon as TikTok started its ascent. This is unfortunate if what matters to you is being cool, or having the youngest demographic. But Meta still makes ludicrous amounts of money! It made US$7,500,000,000 profit… in the last three months! More importantly, Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram, Meta’s core products, are still nowhere near built out – all the opportunities to make shopping happen easily and efficiently, for example, are largely unrealised. That’s money on the table.

It seems wildly dangerous to chase TikTok so aggressively and risk breaking your audience’s bond with your core products, just so you can beat a competitor which already looks like it has won a different race. I also worry about what all the older people who love Facebook in a very normie way will do when confronted by a TikTok-style feed of shortform video from anywhere. Will they ever find their friends again? What bizarre stuff will they end up believing?

But Facebook becoming less profitable is of far less concern to me than the fate of all the businesses and organisations that have ended up relying on it (after Facebook told them to, to be clear) as a key plank of their communication strategy. It’s obviously been unreliable essentially from the start, but this feels like the biggest change since the introduction of the feed, and potentially bigger than that again.

And this time it’s happening to a massively entrenched globally dominant product, rather than a plucky startup with a few hundred million occasional browsers. As a one-time, ultra-consequential change, what do you see happening here? For all those who run businesses based on accessing local audiences, or public health people trying to reach their geographically-bound community, what’s the plan? 

It just seems incredibly chaotic in ways we likely can’t even imagine.

Time of death called by Nadeshot, a gaming entrepreneur with 2.9m followers on Twitter.

ANNA: The tail is wagging the dog

Two things happen when either a new platform rises or an old platform radically changes its offering. 

First, the tail starts wagging the dog. People turn themselves inside out trying to adapt to new platforms. Managers will be demanding that “we get on TikTok” or that you try and adapt to the new algorithm on Facebook and Instagram. 

Here’s advice that I’ve never given: go for it on TikTok, within parameters. You’re still a public health organisation or council, so don’t abandon all semblance of being an interloper in a creator and fan environment. That app is still massively experimental and expansive. There seems to be room for most stuff there. You don’t have to dance. “Pivot to video” will send chills up some people’s spines but we are 100% at that point as a way of communicating. 

We’ve sort of come full circle back to when you could chuck any badly made stuff up on Facebook and get a few likes. Then we got slick and Facebook and Instagram imposed all sorts of rules about what works and what doesn’t and how you reach people. I still think that’s where Facebook and Instagram are going to struggle. 

Brands and organisations can figure out how to fit in with TikTok aesthetics because it’s so feature-heavy, so viral, so open, quite forgiving and raw. It’s also still a place where you reach people organically which is indeed a huge throwback to the early days. Facebook and Instagram imposed so many restrictions about content and what you could do there that it made that environment far less creative, especially for advertisers. 

The downside of being led by the tail is you will see people compromise quality offerings, desperate to game the algorithm or just make truly awful content because Reels on Instagram are what you’ve read about. Sometimes I wish these kinds of radical changes would prompt a return to quality over quantity and the fundamentals of how to reach people and talk to them, but that never seems to happen. Things just continue to fracture and resources get further divided.

You’ve got two enormous oppositional forces if you’re trying to reach people. Communicating with customers has gotten even more fragmented and difficult; we’re getting to the point where you have to split a communications mix into 50 different parts. That’s taxing, and it’s tempting to be nostalgic for the days of the one big brand ad on the telly. But you also can’t deny what we see in all the data about where people are and where they’re spending their time. Single channel reach died a long time ago. 

The second thing will be more ads. There’s some suggestion that that home tab will expose people to new things more readily and will mix posts, photos and shortform video. So as a page, you might break through – but when you look at what ranks on Facebook, it’s 99% random garbage. And anyone trying to get a link click there has been fighting an uphill battle for years.

Facebook feed content views from content viewers in the US during Q1 2022 (Source: Meta)

That secondary tab is meant to offer your own select view – but Facebook has been telling us for years that it’s simply not possible to surface the posts of every friend you have and every page you follow, so I don’t see how they’re going to do that now. What if you like 560 pages? Or have 1200 friends?

DUNCAN: Facebook is probably right to go to war, but is this the right strategy?

I know this is a ginormous company with tens of thousands of the best minds of a generation (RIP us), but honestly, have they definitely thought this through? I loved Steven Levy’s eye-popping history of Facebook, because he’d had such great access to Mark Zuckerberg over a long span. The thing that leapt out so much was how much Zuck loved classics, and the warlike stories of ancient Rome. And because he was frozen in amber, essentially devoured by his own creation from a very young age, his adoration of the simplicity of those stories never had a chance to be tested against the mundanities of real life. 

It feels like, as a leader, he’s never as galvanised as when he believes his creation is under attack. And while it has been under attack non-stop since Trump was elected, fighting policy and comms battles is hard. Now that he finally has a true business battle you can almost feel his glee at getting the chance to put on his funny helmet, brandish his sword and roleplay as a general.

And honestly, on some level I don’t blame him. TikTok is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. People don’t seem to know this, but it was the most visited site on the entire internet last year. Reminder: it launched outside China in 2017. 

So he’s probably right to view it as an existential threat. I guess the thing I don’t believe is that turning your popular and profitable products into a messy and cringe version of the challenger is the way to win. 

ANNA: People still don’t know just how big and broad TikTok really is

A lot of people are still underestimating TikTok and assume it’s a silly video app for Gen Z to do silly dances. Yet the breadth of content there and the age of people creating on it is all over the place. It’s not overstating it to say, as Kate Lindsay of Embedded did, that TikTok is the new town square. And TikTok isn’t just threatening Meta, it’s chewing into Google’s world too. 

There’s a new survey from Google itself that says 40% of Gen Z are using TikTok and Instagram as a search engine. I tried it over the weekend and it’s not a completely stupid or unviable concept. I guess one of the big questions is what this means for people who have used social media as a distribution platform and use Google as a means to be discovered. If social media is topping the list of news sources in New Zealand in the new BSA report, where to from here?

Duncan: This is the end of the open internet and I feel terrible

That’s truly the thing which keeps consuming me – like, who is in charge here? We never got together as a community and had a big debate, and said that we wanted to change our main news, information and interaction venues to be completely unregulated, inherently impossible to vet and beyond policing. Nor that we were comfortable with making the most impactful platform for young people under the control of an autocratic and semi-hostile foreign power.

But here we are! And it has so many cascading impacts. I tend to focus narrowly on the things which impact us as a news organisation – the massive down-scaling of link sharing is one that feels deeply chilling to me, as it’s a huge part of the distribution and business model which funds what is left of modern journalism. But so much more happens on Facebook – I mean our current Facebook – than just news. What’s the broader impact here?

Anna: Basically, it’s going to get a lot more chaotic

Organic reach for serious marketing, communications, public service work and news content is dead and has been for a while, unless you adapt. You either start to play in a billion channels, adapting to each of them, finding ways to be comfortable with more but smaller groups of audiences who perhaps just know you in one and might never visit your website, or spend money to reach them. Tracking and reporting is going to get chaotic. Measuring ROI on a platform like TikTok just sounds bananas. 

Meta will never kill its golden calf and ads will be a big part of wherever you are in that ecosystem. Zuckerberg wants to build his Metaverse and Meta just posted their first ever revenue decline last week. Ads will be how they continue to pitch their advantage to anyone trying to get eyeballs rather than earn them. And it’ll need to be video to mix into the swirling maze of whatever that home tab looks like. But TikTok is coming for that too with plans to expand its shop functionality this year. And ad spend is declining with digital ads usually first on the chopping block. 

Honestly Duncan, I don’t know. I want to say “focus on the fundamentals” which has held many people trying to use these platforms in good stead for years – but as you say, this all feels very chaotic and some of what we’re seeing about Gen Z habits is intractable. They’ve almost splintered off into this entirely alien and foreign (to anyone older than them) media consumption landscape and pulled up a small drawbridge where unless you really get it, you’re not getting in. We’ll see how it all works out very soon on a social platform near you.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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