Facebook may be turning 20 on 4 February, but it is just as much of a magnet for controversy and cash today as when it was a brash, break-everything teenager.
On 31 January, American senators harangued Mark Zuckerberg, the social network’s founder, over the spread of harmful material. As we published this the next day, he was poised to announce another set of glittering results for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, which is now valued at $1tn.
Yet even as social media reliably draws vast amounts of attention from addicts and critics alike, it is undergoing a profound but little-noticed transformation. The weird magic of online social networks was to combine personal interactions with mass communication.
Now, this amalgam is splitting in two again.
Status updates from friends have given way to videos from strangers that resemble a hyperactive TV. Public posting is increasingly migrating to closed groups, rather like email. What Zuckerberg calls the digital “town square” is being rebuilt —and posing problems.
This matters because social media is how people experience the internet. Facebook itself has more than 3 billion users.
Social apps take up nearly half of mobile screen time, which, in turn, consumes more than a quarter of waking hours. They gobble up 40% more time than they did in 2020, as the world has gone online.
As well as being fun, social media is the crucible of online debate and a catapult for political campaigns. In a year when half the world heads to the polls, politicians from Donald Trump to Narendra Modi will be busy online.
The striking feature of the new social media is that they are no longer very social. Inspired by TikTok, apps like Facebook increasingly serve a diet of clips selected by artificial intelligence according to a user’s viewing behaviour, not their social connections.
Meanwhile, people are posting less. The share of Americans who say they enjoy documenting their life online has fallen from 40% to 28% since 2020. Debate is moving to closed platforms, such as WhatsApp and Telegram.
The lights have gone out in the town square.
Social media have always been opaque since every feed is different. But TikTok, a Chinese-owned video phenomenon, is a black box to researchers. Twitter, rebranded as X, has published some of its code but tightened access to data about which tweets are seen. Private messaging groups are often fully encrypted.
Read more: Threads v Twitter: The mother of all battles