Politically, Facebook is in crisis mode. Yet its business has never been healthier. Can it get out of its PR jam without slowing down its money-minting machine? It’s certainly going to try.
This week, while Facebook’s top lawyer was on Capitol Hill getting grilled by Congress, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was readying the company’s latest blockbuster report to investors on its quarterly earnings. The company raked in a record $10.3 billion in revenue, beat expectations on profits, and continued to grow, reaching 1.37 billion users every day.
Still, both the tone and substance of the company’s report reflected the hot water it’s in. Zuckerberg started the call by expressing disgust at Russia’s use of his social network during the 2016 campaign to try to manipulate American voters, including via paid advertisements, and his determination to put a stop to it. He warned investors that the company plans to spend significantly more in the future on monitoring and securing its ad network. Facebook’s stock slid just a bit when he said that.
In the long run, hiring 10,000 new people (not necessarily full-time employees, mind you) to monitor ads and verify the identities of advertisers seems unlikely to sway the company’s fortunes. And there is a growing cadre of critics who don’t believe it will solve the underlying problem, either. What was interesting about Zuckerberg’s comments was that they suggested he’s actually listening to those critics—even if the solutions he’s proposing aren’t quite what they had in mind.
Earlier this week, the New York Times enlisted nine tech experts to weigh in on “how to fix Facebook.” Among them was Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy and author of the influential book The Filter Bubble. His proposal: Instead of ranking posts based on “clicks and likes,” Facebook’s news feed algorithm should optimize for “time well spent.” The phrase—time well spent—is associated with Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager and in-house ethicist, who has launched a nonprofit by that name. The implied critique is that much of the time we spend on social media is more or less wasted, and that a better version of the internet would focus less on keeping us addicted to our screens and more on adding value to our lives. Pariser’s suggestion was that this would have the side effect of making Facebook the sort of place where divisive memes, such as those purveyed by Russian trolls, would be less likely to flourish.
Surprisingly, Zuckerberg himself employed this very phrase multiple times on Facebook’s earnings call Wednesday. After laying out his plans to combat threats like election meddling, he pivoted to a discussion of Facebook’s longer-term product road map, which focuses on becoming a major destination for video content. Zuckerberg said (italics mine):
But as video grows, it's important to remember that Facebook is about bringing people closer together and enabling meaningful social interactions; it's not primarily about consuming content passively. Research shows that interacting with friends and family on social media tends to be more meaningful and can be good for our wellbeing, and that's time well spent. But when we just passively consume content, that may be less true.
And so, Zuckerberg added, Facebook will not measure its success based solely on the time its users spend watching videos. It will optimize instead for “meaningful social interactions” among users talking about videos on the platform, because such interactions dovetail with the company’s newly articulated goals of “bringing people closer together” and “building community.” (He referred to “time well spent” again later in the call, telling an analyst, “not all time spent is created equal … What we really want to go for is time well spent.”)
Does that mean Facebook is taking seriously the critique that its longtime emphasis on optimizing for user engagement—its ability to feed us precisely the thing we want, even if the thing is hate-filled and conspiracy-laced—may be fundamentally flawed? In a phone interview, Pariser told me he thinks it just might be. “I think it’s the right question for Facebook to be grappling with: ‘Now that we’re a really big part of people’s lives, how comfortable are we with the role we’re playing?’” Pariser took Zuckerberg to be acknowledging on the earnings call that the part of Facebook that people really value is connecting with other people, not consuming clickbait or memes. Pariser said he agrees with that.
Harris himself, however, took a dimmer view of Zuckerberg’s use of the phrase he helped to popularize. I couldn’t reach him for an interview, but he tweeted that he found the company’s appropriation of the term “dishonest” until the company abandons its automated advertising model, the very thing that allowed Russian trolls to take advantage the platform. (That, to be clear, is not going to happen anytime soon.) Time well spent, Harris went on, isn’t about commenting on Facebook videos with friends. It’s about “lasting choices we cherish, meaningful connections, no regrets, upholding pillars of society.” And it’s antithetical to Facebook’s “runaway feeds dividing societies apart until there’s no shared truth.” Here’s the start of the thread:
It’s understandable that Harris found Zuckerberg’s use of the phrase disingenuous. It does sound, at least to some degree, that Zuckerberg is co-opting the language of his critics to justify yet another move that happens to be in Facebook’s business interests. (Its shift to video is widely suspected to be driven more by the potential for lucrative video ads than by popular demand or any notion of human connection.)
On the other hand, it would be naïve to expect Facebook to give up its whole business and focus on getting people offline. To the extent that “time well spent” has any chance to be relevant to Facebook’s design choices, it’s going to look something more like what Zuckerberg proposed than what Harris wants to see.
But if the company is earnest about it, those efforts should certainly go beyond video. Its algorithms already looks at things like whether users like a post before or after they’ve actually read it, an indicator of the depth of their engagement. But it could follow a suggestion from another of the experts in that Times piece, Jonathan Albright of Columbia University’s Tow Center: Reorganize its emoji reactions to allow users to signal that they found a given post important, trustworthy, or otherwise worthwhile, rather than just that they liked, loved, or were surprised or angered by it. (In Albright’s view, the fact that Facebook’s algorithm is built on emotion-based signals is a big reason why the news feed is often dominated by polarizing messages.)
Getting users to talk to each other about online video, or even to click “trust” instead of “like” on a post, isn’t going to singlehandedly solve Facebook’s problems with divisive content or foreign election meddling—any more than hiring 10,000 poorly compensated human contractors to vet advertisements is going to solve it. But it’s also too early to dismiss Zuckerberg’s interest in “time well spent” as merely a cynical play for ad dollars. If the phrase catches on within the company, it could shape all kinds of other design choices over time, in ways that ultimately make for a better—or at least less insidious—social network. What it won’t do, knowing Zuckerberg, is keep the company from continuing to make enormous piles of money.