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We Are Only Just Realising That Facebook Has Lost All Meaning

For years, publisher content papered over the cracks of a company falling apart.

Sam Wolfson

Sam Wolfson

For our grandparents, having a job and a family, putting food on the table and not dying in a war was normally enough. But we’re looking for something more: we need to know we're not just another Jake or Sarah floating around in the millennial milieu – we need meaning in our lives and to know we meant something to the world.

Facebook Inc. is the first half-a-trillion dollar company to profit not from steel, oil, products or hardware, but from our quest for meaning. It takes experiences, thoughts, ideas, lust and fear, and turns them, with the help of targeted advertising, into money. With the brands it owns –Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – it has something near a monopoly on the meaning economy.

It is, of course, far from the first company to profit in this way. Since the dawn of advertising, giving meaning to our lives has been a way for companies to sell more product. It’s why Coke sells more than Pepsi, why people trust German cars no matter what. But in the Facebook era it has been supercharged: they aren’t just reaping financial gain from hollow aspirations like wanting a nicer watch or a better body. Their success stems from something deeper: an in-joke between friends; a 2AM status from someone who can’t get to sleep; some thigh revealed in a new profile pic; a desperate, lonely scroll through photos back from when you still had fun. That is the Facebook business model – it tries to convert the messiness of your life into meaningful moments, which it can then sell on to other companies.

The fact that Facebook has become so rich so quickly has obviously interested other companies. How can they jump in on the meaning economy? Certainly, many have tried. Traditional brands have moved from advertising a product into branded content in which they try to connect at some deeper level with our sense of id. Take Lynx, which once sold a horny teenage fantasy of their product attracting women like flies, but in 2016 released a series of black-and-white YouTube ruminations on modern masculinity.

Heineken made a series of videos about people who have fundamental political differences, and infamously Pepsi tried to co-opt the rise of street activism in a spot featuring Kendall Jenner. These videos, mostly too long for television, rely on Facebook to be spread, and so advertisers started to act like your friends, posting videos for you to share with others – which a surprising number of us were willing to do.

There are also new companies that have sprung up as parasitic feeders in the meaning economy. Some existed before Facebook, and found the platform a useful tool to spread the journalism and entertainment they were already creating. Others, like Uproxx, Now This and AJ+, have refined this process further, by industrialising the meaning industry. They will take a video of a woman shouting at someone on a train and turn it into a tightly packed piece of feelings called "This woman went viral after shutting down a racist rant on the subway".

The fact the video is filmed on someone’s phone, that the follow-up interview is a little grainy, that the words appear over the video hinting at how you should feel – it’s all part of how you make something meaningful on Facebook.

This video feels righteous, important. It's not clickbait, but it's also not news; it sits in some magic middle spot: the professionalisation of social interaction. There are millions of other examples: "Hidden camera captures greatest dad ever", "A Picture of a Refugee Staring Into a Gym Went Viral. Now He Has A Lifetime Membership," "This Woman Shut Down a Fuckboy Who Wouldn’t Stop Texting Her and His Response Is Everything That’s Wrong With Modern Dating." These stories aim to ape real social interaction, but supercharge it, so they are actually more interesting than anything our friends have to say.

Indeed, our friends mostly stopped posting their own statuses and just started sharing these posts instead. That was the dirty secret of Facebook's "social" media: it wasn't really social in the traditional sense of having a conversation; it was more like Gogglebox, an audience watching someone else watch and react to someone they didn't know. The companies which distributed these sharing focal points were allowed to grow so rapidly because Facebook allowed them to, delivering them millions of humans if their content proved to be "shareable" enough.

Facebook has never been neutral in this process: it guides you to the things you should be feeling, the friendships you should value, the thoughts you should have. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced a huge change at Facebook, perhaps the biggest since the company opened up beyond university campuses and became available to everyone. He is going to remove nearly all the content created by brands, publishers and news organisations, he revealed, and make Facebook more about interactions between real people. The reason for doing this, Zuckerberg says, is to create "more meaningful social interactions".

The theory behind this, like everything Facebook does, is research and consumer-tested. Zuckerberg says the company has found that:

"when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos – even if they're entertaining or informative – may not be as good."

The changes are already being rolled out, and Facebook says they will be felt by everyone in the next couple of months. But in my news feed, at least, they seem to be in full effect.

To demonstrate what I've currently got going on, I've just screenshotted everything appearing in my feed (except for links to VICE articles, which are being shared by my colleagues, which I imagine is quite unique to my particular circumstances).

Wow. I have ~feels~

The problem with the new Facebook is that there is simply not enough meaningful content being generated by users to fill the gap left by brands and publishers. Granted, every now and again there is an engagement announcement, a "SUMMER 2017" film developed, an incredible thread after someone quits their job and does a 600-word status on how bad the toilets were. But mostly it’s just people asking for accountants or holiday recommendations. Most of us stopped handing over our real selves to Facebook a while ago, and let publishers take over. Now they’re gone, there are no meaningful social interactions, just a dull bulletin board.

VICE is of course not a neutral participant in this debate: it relies partly on Facebook for readers, and like many publishers will likely take a traffic hit from the changes to the algorithm – a shift our colleagues at Motherboard pointed out might not be such a bad thing for the media in the long run. But where does this leave Facebook? Leaked data from 2016 showed a huge drop-off in people posting anything personal on the site, and without either publisher or meaningful personal content, what's left? Not much, according to a Verge survey published last year, which found that among the big five tech companies, Facebook had the lowest percentage of people who liked its products and services, the lowest number of people who would recommend it to a friend, and the highest percentage of people who distrust it.

For a while now, with its "On This Day" feature, Facebook has been trying to remind you of a time when the site really did play a part in your meaningful experiences, when you would upload whole photo albums and write on your friends' walls. But look at your notifications and what do you see? One mate from school who became a promoter still inviting you to the club night you’ve never been to, and a thousand alerts from a "room to rent in London" group you’ve forgotten to mute.

Facebook has been fooled by its own creation myth – that it is still a place bubbling with individuals creating incredible moments that have to be shared. In reality, it’s a place most of us are becoming weirded out by and distrustful of. A platform on which we're less likely then ever to share. Publisher content – from advertisers, traditional media and the new feelings industry – was a smokescreen for something that has probably been true for a long time: Facebook doesn’t mean anything any more.

@samwolfson