nothing bad can stay
the impermanent internet
thesis: the permanent social internet is dying. the impermanent social internet will need to replace it. and it will be even more difficult to make money on such an internet than it was before.
first, a bit of history.
facebook, twitter and the like were largely predicated on the idea that people actively desire a record of their activities online. in 2011 or so, facebook rolled out "Timeline,” basically a roadmap of your entire facebook life. most product development thereafter focused on documenting interactions between users and assuming FB’s customers would enjoy these things. the word “canonical” came up a lot when i spoke to execs back then.
this kind of internet, as it turned out, also happened to be convenient for building a business. if facebook knows everything about you, it is easier to sell ads against you. and pretty much every product on FB was built to extract as much information about you as possible.
now, these companies are in a pickle. as facebook matured, we discovered the unintended consequences of living a life online. an errant, ignorant tweet from our teenage years can get us fired—or worse, canceled. our parents could have created an entire instagram dedicated to our poopy-diaped years without our knowledge or express consent. forget running for office if youve ever tweeted about, like, anything.
I cant remember at what point my posts started becoming a liability rather than a rich text of my life. it was probably around the time G*merg*te happened and the gutter of the internet started weaponizing peoples’ pasts against them. or when i started writing about reddit for the nyt, and some of the more vicious, men’s rights activists types decided to go after me. (MRA’s are the true shitbags of the web. try to never invoke their ire.)
the bottom line is that we dont want our histories to come back and fuck us.
Evan Spiegel, for all his faults, realized this early on. (he’s a very guarded, private person, which shaped his idea of the kind of internet he wanted to create for himself.) ive long believed the creation of snapchat was largely a response to a post-Facebook world, and the ideas around the permanence of putting our lives online. it was a stroke of genius from evan, even if ultimately not an enormously lucrative independent company.
that’s where we find ourselves now—evan’s world. people are beginning to post less publicly online. even Mark Zuckerberg has said as much. “In 2019, we expect the amount of Stories that are shared to outnumber the amount of Feed posts that are shared,” he said, referring to Facebook Stories. (fb and IG stories are FB’s blatant ripoffs of Snapchat.)
This is a big deal. Facebook’s moneymaker has always been the News Feed, filled with 15 years of posts, photos and status updates. but in an impermanent world, the fewer so-called “organic” posts that appear in the Feed—meaning, the stuff you or i post on our own accord—the fewer paid ads facebook is able to insert between them. (the company has basically already maxed out on stuffing FB and Instagram feeds with ads, anyway, so this only compounds that problem.)
so what to do?
to Facebook’s credit, the company is mobilizing fast. Zuckerberg is all in on stories (poor snapchat!); he’s created a stories product for every property he owns—Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp— and is promoting the hell out of them. It’s impressive to see an enormous company turn on a dime like this, and few orgs at Facebook’s size would be able to do this so quickly or effectively.
there’s one more big problem: Making money off of Stories is not as simple as making money from the News Feed. the advertising formats are fundamentally different. it’s easy to skip a story ad with a tap of the finger. you don’t linger on the image or video as long when you realize it’s an ad. and the less time you spend on ads, the less Facebook gets paid. that’s a remarkable contrast to how much time people spent lingering on news feed ads.
here’s an example: snapchat, which has been impermanent from the very start, ended 2018 with a little over $1.1 billion in annual revenue from its different ad formats. Facebook, by contrast, raked in more than fifty times that amount, some $55 billion, most of that coming from news feed ads. that is an insane amount of money. but it is also based on a permanent internet, one that is quickly going away.
so we are left with a few questions. as people realize their digital pasts are a liability and post less frequently, are some of these companies going to grow smaller and less lucrative? will facebook — the biggest social network on the planet — end up shrinking? will those annual revenues dry up?
and what happens to Twitter, the absolute furthest behind in terms of any and all product development that deals with an impermanent internet? (in my mind, twitter is super fucked if it doesn’t start testing different versions of itself to experiment with ephemerality. but god knows whats going on over there these days, since it takes them 3+ years to formulate a plan to deal with its harassment problems.)
anyway, food for thought. those bullish on FB will cite the company’s ruthless and efficient history of execution. they’ll believe that new, innovative advertising products are yet to come, and that they will make the company stronger (i.e. richer) than ever. those bearish on FB will probably look at the enormous amount of flak it’s taking from literally every regulator around the world, and wonder if it will be broken up into parts. or maybe people are actually pissed off enough right now at the numerous scandals and data leaks that they’ll actually delete FB en masse. (i doubt it.)
this newsletter/blog post—as is the case with blog posts—is permanent, so i will eventually have the benefit of hindsight to tell me if i was fantastically wrong. or, as is often the case with the internet, we will undergo another enormous shift with how people carry out their digital lives.
maybe i’ll delete it later.
it is saturday and it is raining, so here’s some travis: