Facebook discovers cost of factory-farming users

January 14, 2018 - 3:24 PM
Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California in April 18, 2017 file photo. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

NEW YORK — Mark Zuckerberg is discovering the cost of factory-farming Facebook’s users. The $550 billion social network’s success harvesting advertising dollars through mass-appeal content has made it very profitable. The snag is that users are increasingly unhappy. The founder and chief executive’s return to focusing more on their welfare may limit short-run earnings but should improve sustainability.

The Facebook farm has become increasingly unwholesome. The company is at the center of a storm over the promotion of false news stories, some potentially placed with the intention of interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Time spent per user on the core site has been falling, albeit from a high base, according to Pivotal Research. Zuckerberg’s stated goals for 2018 are fixing the site, cleaning up abuse, limiting interference by nation states, and “making sure time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”

Now Facebook is changing its algorithms, according to a post on Thursday, to prioritize news-feed items that users’ friends share and interact with and reduce the amount of third-party non-advertising content.

Multiple studies link time spent on social networks with unhappiness, and watching mass-produced videos and reading clickbait articles on a screen surely don’t help. Facebook hopes higher-quality feeds will work better. “We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote.

This along with possible changes like favoring reputable news sources over more sensational ones, as Facebook is considering according to the Wall Street Journal, will probably hurt the company financially over the short run. Time spent on the site by users will probably fall, and that means advertising will grow more slowly.

That helps explain the 4 percent decline in the company’s shares by early afternoon on Friday. It’s worth it over the long term, however, if it keeps users sufficiently content to remain on the Facebook farm.