Social media addiction is a real, and growing problem.
It’s rife among millennials, apparently, and reportedly as big a problem in that age cohort as drugs and alcohol abuse.
Everyone knows someone who won’t put down their phone because they are constantly checking their social network of choice. And/or someone who seems to document their entire life on an external internet platform.
But social media addiction is not just a problem for individuals.
An entire industry is hooked on it, specifically, the biggest platform, Facebook.
And that industry – the one I work in – is finally coming to grips with the problem.
Facebook sent shockwaves through the global media industry last week when it announced the most significant changes to its news feed in years.
The company, which has been under fire on multiple fronts, said it would increasingly emphasise content shared by family and friends that sparks ”meaningful interactions”.
This would come at the expense of content shared from official pages by small businesses, big brands and yes, publishers.
In recent years, almost all companies selling things to consumers have rushed to build a presence on Facebook, which attracts two billion users around the world each month.
The news industry is no exception.
Since 2015, Facebook has been a bigger source of traffic for publishers than Google (though Google appeared to reclaim the mantle at the end of last year).
Newer outlets (think BuzzFeed, or the Betoota Advocate) and brands (think online mattress sales companies, and millennial themed investment products); have been able to rapidly scale their businesses by mastering the intricacies of the platform.
Older news outlets charged headfirst onto Facebook as well, in the hope of boosting digital revenue to make up for declines in print.
The idea was to maximise audience, and by extension, generate more money from online ads.
The problem was, the platform everyone was posting their stories on, was the same platform responsible for a sharp decline in digital advertising rates – and a direct competitor for money from brands.
So while Facebook might have helped some publishers grow their traffic, the ad dollars never really followed.
The news industry didn’t react well to Facebook’s announcement last week. Yet, neither did Wall Street. Facebook shares crashed 4.5 per cent, costing CEO Mark Zuckerberg billions, as investors struggled to digest the news.
“We think the actions the company will take pose a headwind to growth for the business in the near-term,” Brian Wieser, an analyst at New York based Pivotal Research told clients after the announcement.
So, what is really going on here?
Zuckerberg tried to frame the move as being designed to ensure Facebook is a force for good in the world. But business considerations were almost certainly part of the motivation.
Facebook’s growth is showing alarming signs of stalling, Wieser argues.
While the platform continues to attract more users, these users are spending less time on Facebook than they used to, he estimates.
Facebook saw declines in time spent per user of 7.0 per cent and 4.7 per cent in August and September, according to Wieser. These figures exlude Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
The decline might be due to the nature of the content dominating Facebook these days. (Too many annoying videos? Too many annoying posts from brands?)
Whether boosting content from friends makes Facebook a nicer place to spend time remains to be seen.
Friday’s announcement is not the kind of overture from Facebook that many publishers might have been expecting, though.
The giant social network suffered mass criticism last year, among other things, for failing to stem fake news, and selling ads to Russian trolls that reached millions of Americans.
‘s competition watchdog is also investigating the company (and Google) for its dominance of the local ad market.
Yet the changes, which only came with a little forewarning, might not have the impact many publishers (and brands and small businesses) fear.
Content shared by friends and family that trigger ‘meaningful interactions’ will still spread on Facebook. This obviously could still include news stories.
And the company is reportedly testing a system to boost credible publishers content in its algorithims (although this wasn’t part of last week’s announcement).
The reality is, everyone should have seen this coming from a mile away.
Facebook has been heading in a ‘pay for play’ direction for a while now. It’s a business first and foremost, after all.
Brands and media companies used to be able to get their content in front of lots of eyes by mastering the dark arts of Facebook.
They can still achieve this. They will just have to pay for it.
For publishers, relying on Facebook always looked unsustainable.
Lots of companies across lots of industries use external partners for their distribution.
Entrusting this vital task to a competitor was never going to work.