Steve Baldwin
Editor-in-Chief at Didit

April 11, 2016: What Facebook calls “original broadcast sharing” — the sharing of data about personal events such as birthdays, graduations, anecdotes, and food consumption — is in steep decline, according to reports at the paywalled website “The Information” and via Bloomberg News.

From mid-2014 to mid-2015, the volume of this data declined by 21 percent, and while the decline appears to have been reduced this year to just 15 percent, it’s still troubling to the service, so troubling that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has brought the issue up at a number of all-hands meetings this year.

Facebook hasn’t directly addressed the issue of what’s causing the decline, with a spokesman only noting that “people continue to share a ton on Facebook; the overall level of sharing has remained not only strong, but similar to levels in prior years.”

Industry analysts have posited several reasons for the decline in personal sharing, including:

1. An increased awareness among the public that information posted anywhere on the web can come back to bite them.

It’s rare that a day goes by without a news report appearing about a person who’s been humiliated, shamed, stalked, fired, or otherwise damaged by a post on Facebook, Twitter, or other social network. While many of these stories are of the “how stupid can they get?” variety, their collective impact on the larger public consciousness shouldn’t be underestimated. The recent Hulk Hogan/Gawker lawsuit — in which a jury awarded Hogan an unprecedentedly large damage award for privacy invasion, further drives the idea that everyone can be a victim of social media stalking.

While there’s no independent data suggesting that people view engaging with social media as an inherently risky behavior, public awareness and perception of the issue of privacy is highly malleable. For example, many analysts were surprised when a recent IoT (Internet of Things) study showed that 70 percent of U.S. mobile media users were concerned about the privacy implications of turning their homes over to robotic control.

It’s possible – even likely — that users are beginning to appreciate the reputational risks presented by oversharing, and becoming more discrete about what — and to whom — they share personal data with on networks such as Facebook.

2. Increased use of more specialized social channels.
Facebook launched in 2004 — an eternity in “internet time.” Recent (2014) data shows a migration of teen users away from the network toward those less likely to include their elders as members. To many young people today, Facebook’s original appeal has long been supplanted by newer entrants.

Private, niche-oriented, interest- and activity-based social networks have proliferated in the past several years. Specialized social networks allow users to interact in a focused way with like-minded members of the same community. These networks tend to come and go, but they’ve collectively conditioned users to accept the proposition that more value can be obtained by participating in multiple networks mirroring the multiple aspects of one’s personality than by accepting the inevitable limitations and compromises imposed by one big network “built for the entire world.”

3. Fatigue with the “mallification” of Facebook’s news feed
Like Google, Facebook is a public company which must accommodate the varying and often competing interests of users, advertisers, and shareholders. As additional real estate is allocated to revenue-producing ad space, personal posts are increasingly juxtaposed against relatively impersonal, professionally-produced ad collateral, resulting in a “vibe” more characteristic of a suburban shopping mall than an intimate venue where the sharing of original personal content is a natural act.

4. Rise of user “futilitarianism”
Many Facebook users have become aware of the fact that their personal posts have a very low chance of reaching more than a handful of their real-world friends unless they pay Facebook to display this content, a realization manifesting itself in a feeling of futility (“why bother posting it — nobody’s going to see it anyway?”).

WHAT CAN FACEBOOK TO DO ENCOURAGE MORE SHARING?

Facebook’s management is obviously aware of the problem, and has likely already hatched a plan to address it. This week’s announcement of a massive revamp of its Live Video offerings is likely an initial response to the problem.

Facebook could do many other things to staunch the decline in sharing, perhaps beginning with a simplification of its very complex privacy settings to make the process much clearer. Facebook could also consider broadening its limited program of paying video content providers to its general user-base to encourage more sharing, or modifying its reach-limiting algorithm so that sharers could be confident that their posts could be seen by more than a handful of people.

The history of Internet-based social networks is fairly grim. They tend to grow big very quickly, reach stasis, and suffer long lingering declines as their models are disrupted by new market entrants. But Facebook is a company with massive capital and human resources that has handled major prior challenges to its dominance with aplomb. So it will be very interesting to see what they do to staunch the decline of sharing, which, if unaddressed, could become an existential threat to its future.

Raphael

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