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A brief timeline of Facebook pulling the rug on users, brands, and media

Why does our industry have such a short memory when it comes to Meta/Facebook/Instagram?

July 28, 2022

Headshot of Kyle Monson - Founding partner at Codeword

Kyle Monson

Founding partner at Codeword

[UPDATE: Casey Newton just posted a timely Q&A with Instagram’s Adam Mosseri here. It’s worth reading… feels like he’s walking back on the specifics but doubling down overall.]

I’ve been following Meta/Facebook for a long time, first as a journalist, then as a content strategist, and now as the owner of an agency that does work for clients on FB/IG. And I should say upfront that I have a ton of biases — for starters, I have close friends that work at Meta, my spouse is a professional photographer on Instagram, and the company competes with my clients. Conflicts all around.

What’s not conflicted is my belief that Meta doesn’t put its users first, whether those “users” are normal people, or its media partners, or brands and advertisers. This is going to be an issue as the company builds a Meta-first metaverse. But even this week, they’re saying as much with their response to “Make Instagram Instagram Again” — get back in your corner, users, we have industry fads to follow!

Which, fine, it’s a business, and businesses are designed to chase money. Where Meta is unique is in its decade-plus history of building audiences, pushing narratives, encouraging specific user behaviors, and then completely pulling the rug. Instagram is dominating the news this week and hot takes abound, but let’s please take a longer view and remember whom we’re dealing with.
A few highlights from years past, because there are lots of parallels to today…

User Revolt Part I

Here’s a fun throwback to 2009, when 94% of users hated Facebook’s News Feed redesign. Every UX/UI update is going to come with user anxiety. Facebook’s responses to the anxiety is usually some form of “you’ll get used to it.” It’s the same chiding tone Adam Mosseri takes in his ill-conceived video yesterday.

Brand Channel Switcheroo!

Around that same time came The Great Switcheroo. For years, Facebook’s story to advertisers was “come build your community on Facebook and you’ll have an opt-in audience forever!”

I can tell you as a content strategist at the time, brands invested all kinds of money and energy into building their own communities on the platform. We advised them to! And Facebook was more of an open platform back then, so there was a lot of cool stuff we could do, like digital shelves for ecommerce.

But the real promise was that we could build a community and reach them for free, whenever we want, forever. This was a huge driver of the “brands should be publishers” movement.

Then Facebook completely undercut the entire industry. First the company rolled out branded “community pages” that FB owned, which were designed to compete directly with the brand pages we’d patiently built. They were brand pages, but they weren’t owned, or maintained, or even sanctioned by the brands themselves. Here’s what SocialMediaToday said about it at the time:

This is about the world’s largest social network encouraging companies to set up shop on their network and to invest in their presence there, then pulling the rug out from under their feet and launching a new aspect to the network that dilutes the investment for those companies.

The Death of Organic Reach

But that’s not even the worst of it. Facebook also changed the News Feed algorithm so organic reach for brand channels completely dried up. You want to reach that audience you invested so much in building? You gotta pay to play.
Naturally, the industry was pissed. This didn’t just affect big brands, it affected mom-and-pops, indie bands, artists, publishers, anyone who was sold on Facebook’s pitch that organic reach was the best reach.

It was bad for users too, who’d opted into hearing from their favorite bands, artists, movie studios, brands, whatever. They’d signaled that they wanted this content in their News Feed, and Facebook was saying nope.

The company put out an explainer that will make your blood boil if you remember those days. Organic reach was declining because “there’s so much more content now,” and “the News Feed algorithm is evolving.” It’s what they’re saying this week too. And anyway, “Fans make your ads more effective,” even though the whole point of the platform was for brands to deliver richer online experiences instead of ads.

And then there’s this chestnut:

Facebook is far more effective when businesses use paid media to help meet their goals. Your business won’t always appear on the first page of a search result unless you’re paying to be part of that space. Similarly, paid media on Facebook allows businesses to reach broader audiences more predictably, and with much greater accuracy than organic content.

Measurement Fake Out and the Pivot to Video

And should we talk about the measurement head-fakes over the years? There’s a since-deleted 2014 post from Facebook tantalizingly called “What the shift to video means for creators,” which unfortunately isn’t archived by The Wayback Machine. But here’s a zombie stub on Google Search:

We’re increasingly seeing a shift towards visual content on Facebook, especially with video. In just one year, the number of video posts per person has increased 75% globally and 94% in the US. And with people creating, posting and interacting with more videos on Facebook, the composition of News Feed is changing.

Wait a second, that’s what Adam just said in his Instagram video! 🤔

Anyway, if you work in the media you know what came next. Publishers and newsrooms and brands around the country laid off their writers so they could staff up their video teams. Mic and Mashable and Sports Illustrated and MTV News and Fox Sports and everyone else. This Ad Age headline is brutal…


headline from Ad Age saying "Fire writers, make videos is latest web recipe for publishers"

Funny thing about that, though. Facebook’s shift-to-video metrics were exposed as inaccurate. The inaccuracies were apologized for and explained away by some masterful PR deflection, which is worth reading only because it has aged so poorly. Facebook’s ad-industry friends were happy to go on the record sweeping the whole thing under the rug, meanwhile the internal conversations at Facebook were damning:


"As the product manager for Potential Reach put it: 'it's revenue we should have never made given the fact it's based on wrong data,'" the lawsuit reads. "Another employee stated '[t]he status quo in ad Reach estimation and reporting is deeply wrong.' The only question was, '[h]ow long can we get away with the reach overestimation'"

The company eventually settled out of court for a $40 million slap on the wrist. Meanwhile hundreds of journalists had already lost their jobs.

By that point, the analytics team at Codeword was so skeptical of Facebook metrics we invented our own system for measurement: Quality Engagement Rate, or QER. We still use this with clients today.

And right in the middle of all this mess, Cambridge Analytica was… actually you know what, let’s stay focused.

Meta and the Metaverse

We’re into the recent past now, so you don’t need the full recounting of the company’s new name and vision.

My question for us, if we’re in marketing, or media, or the creator economy, is why we feel the need to follow along on this journey? Can we not see through the metaverse framing? At what point are we allowed to say “based on our long history together, it’s possible you don’t have my best interest at heart,” as users already have? Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me over and over, maybe I’m a sucker who deserves it.

That’s what I was thinking about as I watched folks flocking to the Meta tent at Cannes last month. Are we hoping to drink enough rosé to recoup those inflated media spends from years past? Are some people true believers in the metaverse? Do we simply never learn our lesson?

It also makes me think about all the companies and agencies publishing thought-pieces and hosting panels about the metaverse. In spirit at least, it’s the same group that trumpeted Facebook’s shift-to-video narrative a few short years ago. Is any of it genuine enthusiasm, or are we just riding the wave of trending keywords, hoping to get a slice of the pie before it gets cold and tossed out?

This is where the marketing industry and the digital economy ought to be drawing lines. If Meta wants to push a specific vision for the future, great. It’s not on us to carry their water for them. We’ll do our jobs better if we ignore the pitches of futurists and hucksters, and stay focused on what our audiences actually want right now.

Make Instagram Instagram Again

Which brings us to today, and Instagram. Users are being asked to trust Meta’s vision of the future, and change social media behavior to help the platform win against TikTok.

Taylor Lorenz has a great article about the dynamics of the shift. Just like with the PR deflection after the last shift to video, the company has its defenders in the VC and advertising community. I’m confident their quotes will age just as poorly.

Like the VC who said “Often we end up begrudgingly admitting that the company was right.” (Do we though?) Or the internet analyst who said “They’re saying it sucks out of the gate, but it’s going to get better. That’s how products work in tech, we’re going through a series of iterations.”

OK, but it’s going to get better for whom? Users? I don’t think this company has a track record of improving experiences over time for users. They’ll snag the best features from other platforms and call it innovation, but we already have Snapchat for snaps, and TikTok for TikToks, and Twitter for tweets.

The dream of a single social network that does everything was dead a long time ago, because users like having different platforms for different contexts. Just because McDonald’s sells a shitload of hamburgers doesn’t mean Taco Bell should sell hamburgers. (That’s the best TikTok/Instagram analogy I can come up with.)

Will it get better for creators? I can tell you first-hand, the creator community hates being bullied into adopting new formats, which is exactly what Instagram did with Reels and Stories. As Adam’s ham-fisted video demonstrates perfectly, video is a complicated form factor, requiring very different skills and production processes from photos. Creators and artists can’t simply “pivot to video” any more than big media companies could. And it’s a gamble, just like it was last time, because maybe your audience doesn’t want video from you.

Will the platform get better for advertisers? Maybe. There’s a lot of competition right now for social media dollars, and it’s split between a bunch of other platforms with more audience love than Instagram has these days. And advertisers are a critical audience (they write the checks!). But even advertisers will say “don’t build for us, give the audience what they want and we’ll be there for it.” At least the smart ones say that.

Is this all for the Meta shareholders? That’s the most likely answer. Does designing for shareholders work? We’ll see.

My hope is that we appreciate the hilarious irony of Facebook saying “everyone should shift to video,” and take what the company says with a dash of salt. And, as always, put our audience and their preferences first.

Taylor delivers the quote to end on, from an online strategist and creative coach:

“There’s just a level of eroded trust at this point, where people aren’t willing to invest their energy or labor into whatever Meta is testing this week,” she said. “Instagram is trying to be too many different things, and the constant need they feel to take from other apps leads to ongoing confusion for creators and consumers, and confusion does not lead to adoption.”

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