It’s no secret that Facebook, with Mark Zuckerberg steering the ship, has long been attuned to rival products capable of diminishing its social networking dominance. Put simply, if people are chatting or sharing media content, Facebook desperately wants it to happen under its own umbrella.
This all-encompassing strategy became evident when the company purchased Instagram for $1 billion in 2012. Though the purchase at the time was widely mocked, it quickly became apparent that it was an unabashedly brilliant move on Facebook’s part. Just a few years later, Facebook doled out a whopping $16 billion for the messaging service WhatsApp.
The impetus for both acquisitions was simple: people were increasingly spending time on other social networking applications. Naturally, Mark Zuckerberg viewed this as a threat.
Facebook’s most dangerous rival yet
These days, Facebook faces a new and arguably more potent rival: TikTok. The popular video service, currently the most visited website in the world, is a haven for influencers, celebrities, brands, and of course, everyday individuals across the world.
With people spending more time sharing and consuming videos on TikTok, Facebook is worried about people spending less time on its apps. Just as concerning, from Facebook’s perspective, is that users may abandon Facebook altogether.
There is, after all, only so much time in the day. Put simply, users don’t have time to be active on every social media platform.
The solution? Copy TikTok
Consequently, Facebook is looking to take on TikTok head-on. Rather than acquiring TikTok outright, Facebook will instead look to mimic many of its core features. This, of course, is simply par for the course given Facebook’s willingness to liberally borrow popular features from other apps.
For instance, Instagram Stories and Instagram Reels are essentially carbon copies of existing features taken from Snapchat and TikTok, respectively.
However, with TikTok becoming an ever-dominant force in the social networking and media space, Facebook is ready to put its foot on the gas. In a leaked memo obtained by The Verge, company executives laid out a plan to prioritize posts that are likely to spur engagement at the expense of posts from individuals people actually follow.
The Verge notes:
Here’s how the future Facebook app will work in practice: the main tab will become a mix of Stories and Reels at the top, followed by posts its discovery engine recommends from across both Facebook and Instagram. It’ll be a more visual, video-heavy experience with clearer prompts to direct message friends a post.
In effect, Facebook will try and mimic TikTok’s For You Page, a discovery engine that expertly doles out videos while keeping consumers engaged for hours on end.
Facebook’s risky strategy
The business strategy behind Facebook’s approach makes sense on a surface level. However, it has the potential to destroy the very thing that made Facebook popular in the first place — actual connections between friends, family, and acquaintances.
Facebook is a place where people go to share updates, photos, and videos with their social network. Restructuring the app such that people interact more heavily with people and creators they have no connection to seems shortsighted and, in my opinion, will only serve to push more people away.
Facebook’s approach also misses a key component — namely that TikTok itself isn’t necessarily a social network. Whereas people on Instagram and WhatsApp routinely interact with people they know, the opposite is true of TikTok.
Sure, users can send TikTok videos and engage in chats on the side. However, the main thrust of the app is the ability for users to watch engaging content from creators across the world.
TikTok’s inherent advantage
To this point, Blake Chandlee, a former Facebooker who now serves as TikTok’s president of global business solutions, recently articulated that TikTok is more of an entertainment platform than a social network.
“Facebook is a social platform,” Chandlee said during an interview with CNBC. “They’ve built all their algorithms based on the social graph. That is their core competency. Ours is not. We are an entertainment platform. The difference is significant. It’s a massive difference.”
Chandlee is spot on. One of the reasons TikTok works so smoothly is precisely because it doesn’t operate as a social network. TikTok isn’t a place where I can keep tabs on everything my friends on the app are doing. It’s a place where I can see what interesting people across the world are doing.
Now is it possible that users are using Facebook differently and the company is simply responding to the changing current? Certainly. Especially because video is a huge component of how people spend time on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and co. may be simply leaning into a shift that is already ongoing. This, however, doesn’t make the plan to copy TikTok any more workable.
Personally, I think Facebook may be flirting with danger here. One of the reasons the app is as “sticky” as it is is because of the personal and social connections that can’t be found elsewhere. Where else, after all, am I going to keep up with an old college friend I haven’t seen in years?
If Facebook becomes more of a haven for viral videos, that’s great. But then it’s no different from TikTok and even more expendable.
Pressure from Wall Street
The reality is that Facebook is unfortunately a slave to Wall Street. Remember, analysts are constantly analyzing metrics relating to user growth and how much time users spend on the site. As a result, even in fiscal quarters when Facebook delivers impressive earnings and strong profit growth, investors will hammer the stock if the aforementioned user metrics aren’t growing sufficiently.
In turn, Facebook now finds itself pushed into a corner. Now it effectively has to try and copy TikTok but risk alienating users in the process.
This tweet from a few months back perfectly encapsulates Facebook’s predicament.
Mark Zuckerberg often points to two (very different) competitors on earnings calls: iMessage & TikTok.
iMessage=intimate connections. TikTok=creativity of strangers.
Meta’s suite of products exists in the no-mans-land of loose social ties, being attacked from both sides.
— Rex Woodbury (@rex_woodbury) February 3, 2022
By design, Facebook tries to foster and enhance real-world connections. It’s why the company pushes Groups so aggressively. The company is trying to be all things to all people. But the reality is that this simply isn’t a workable long-term solution.