It’s been 20 years since Mark Zuckerberg first brought thefacebook.com online from his dorm room. What happened next has been endlessly documented: the Harvard-only social network took over college campuses and, eventually, the world.
The social network occupies an increasingly awkward space in Meta’s “family” of apps. A majority of American adults still use the service, but three out of four believe Facebook — perhaps because it fueled a global misinformation crises and promoted genocidal hate speech — is “making society worse.” Facebook still generates billions of dollars in ad revenue for Meta, but user growth has slowed to the point where the company just announced it will no longer share how many people use it.
“Amen spam” regularly appears in Facebook’s list of most-viewed posts. The most prolific users on its game-streaming service are spammers. Faced with increased pressure from TikTok, Meta rejiggered its feed, yet again, to emphasize recommendations over posts from people you know. But the shift hasn’t made Facebook feel like TikTok as much as a strange window into what Meta’s algorithms deem most engaging and least offensive.
My own Facebook feed is inundated with posts from groups I don’t belong to dedicated to anodyne topics like home remodeling, cast iron pan enthusiasts and something called the “Dull Men’s Club.” I haven’t shared anything to my own page in more than a year, despite logging in almost daily. I’m hardly an outlier. A majority of adults now say they are “pickier” than they used to be about what they post on social media.
Unsurprisingly, teens have almost no interest in the social network of their parents and grandparents. Just 33 percent of US teens report “ever” using the service, compared with 71 percent in 2015. These dynamics, in which Facebook’s user base is aging faster than its product, has led some academics to conclude that the social network will one day have more profiles for dead people than alive.
Today, Facebook has more than 3 billion users and remains the workhorse of the Mark Zuckerberg cinematic universe, even if it's no longer the title character. Instead, it’s just one of his company’s “family” of apps. In 2021, it was formally demoted when Zuckerberg rebranded the company as Meta. "Our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can't possibly represent everything that we're doing today, let alone in the future," Zuckerberg said of Facebook. "From now on, we're going to be metaverse-first, not Facebook-first."
Whether Meta has succeeded in becoming a “metaverse-first” company is, at best, debatable. But few would argue it’s anything close to “Facebook-first.” More recently, Zuckerberg has tried to pitch Meta as a metaverse company and an AI company, joining the race to create human-level superintelligence.
At the same time, the only reason Zuckerberg’s ambitions are even possible is because of Facebook’s success. Meta has lost tens of billions of dollars on its metaverse investments, and expects to lose even more for the foreseeable future. The company also plans to spend billions more on AI infrastructure (AGI doesn’t come cheap).
These investments will determine whether Zuckerberg’s bet on the future of social media is correct. And if he realizes his vision for an AI chatbot, metaverse-enabled future, it will have been possible largely because of the unparalleled financial success of the oldest and dullest part of his empire.