Facebook, a “disruptor” in the classic sense, has always been about rewriting the rules. Today it decided that earnings reports – usually a time to show of healthy metrics to stockholders and investors – is actually a really good time to admit you made your own product worse.
Rounding out what CEO Mark Zuckerberg described as “a strong year” in the Q4 2017 report Facebook released today was a startling admission: “we made changes that reduced time spent on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day.” Do that maths and that’s slightly more than two fewer minutes spent on the site for each of its 1.4 billion daily users.
The number of minutes users piss away on the site is reported irregularly, and the most recent estimate we could find was reported by the New York Times in mid-2016 to be 50 minutes daily. Since then, Facebook has gotten bigger and stickier, so on its face Zuckerberg has two minutes to spare. But that dip didn’t happen in a vacuum: Growth in two key metrics – daily- and monthly-active users – is down to levels not seen since 2015. Still, the intent is clear: Facebook is making an attempt at supplication, while spinning bad metrics into good PR.
What’s causing people to spend less time on Facebook? According to Zuckerberg, in part it’s hinged on a change made last quarter “to show fewer viral videos to make sure people’s time is well spent”. If a portion of that 50 million hours is directly related to video, we have every reason to doubt the metrics behind Zuckerberg’s selfless act of responsible stewardship. Recall, if you will, Facebook’s realisation that it had over-reported its video statistics in 2016, only to find additional errors in its calculations two months later.
Zuckerberg would like everyone to know that the dip in time spent on Facebook is all part of the new plan – “focusing on meaningful connections” – which he considers “stronger over the long term”. It’s easy to spin bad news as focusing on quality rather than quantity when you own an hour of 1.4 billion peoples’ day, each of which made you an average of $US6.18 ($7.67) on in the last three months alone. Whether there can be “meaningful” human value found at all on a site designed to be maximally addictive, at least in this earnings report, remains unexplored.