Which is: Facebook is in trouble.
Not financial trouble, or legal trouble, or even senators-yelling-at-Mark-Zuckerberg trouble. What I’m talking about is a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize. It’s a cloud of existential dread that hangs over an organization whose best days are behind it, influencing every managerial priority and product decision and leading to increasingly desperate attempts to find a way out. This kind of decline is not necessarily visible from the outside, but insiders see a hundred small, disquieting signs of it every day — user-hostile growth hacks, frenetic pivots, executive paranoia, the gradual attrition of talented colleagues.
It has become fashionable among Facebook critics to emphasize the company’s size and dominance while bashing its missteps. In a Senate hearing on Thursday, lawmakers grilled Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, with questions about the company’s addictive product design and the influence it has over its billions of users. Many of the questions to Ms. Davis were hostile, but as with most Big Tech hearings, there was an odd sort of deference in the air, as if the lawmakers were asking: Hey, Godzilla, would you please stop stomping on Tokyo?
But if these leaked documents proved anything, it is how un-Godzilla-like Facebook feels. The documents, shared with The Journal by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, reveal a company worried that it is losing power and influence, not gaining it, with its own research showing that many of its products aren’t thriving organically. Instead, it is going to increasingly extreme lengths to improve its toxic image, and to stop users from abandoning its apps in favor of more compelling alternatives.
You can see this vulnerability on display in an installment of The Journal’s series that landed last week. The article, which cited internal Facebook research, revealed that the company has been strategizing about how to market itself to children, referring to preteens as a “valuable but untapped audience.” The article contained plenty of fodder for outrage, including a presentation in which Facebook researchers asked if there was “a way to leverage playdates to drive word of hand/growth among kids?”
It’s a crazy-sounding question, but it’s also revealing. Would a confident, thriving social media app need to “leverage playdates,” or concoct elaborate growth strategies aimed at 10-year-olds? If Facebook is so unstoppable, would it really be promoting itself to tweens as — and please read this in the voice of the Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme — a “Life Coach for Adulting?”
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