Facebook’s focus on profit has caused the site to suffer

In the words of Rashida Jones’s character, Marylin Delpy, in the movie “The Social Network”, “Bosnia…they don’t have roads but they have Facebook.” For years we’ve been told that Facebook is the monolith—the mighty invisible forum for friends, family, and organizations. Facebook has spread its reach to every continent and nearly every country in the world. But perhaps the social deity of the Internet is not the immortal titan we believe it to be.

Facebook has spread its reach to every continent and nearly every country in the world. But perhaps the social deity of the Internet is not the immortal titan we believe it to be.”

— Jack Youngblut

On May 18, 2012, Facebook opened its initial public offering (IPO). Though many considered this to be revolutionary, the move has negatively impacted the the company and its users. Within a week Facebook had lost half of its initial opening shares and by June 6, investors in Facebook had lost 40 billion dollars. Recently, the social networking site has seen only marginal gains in its prices, putting stress on the company as a whole.

Now Facebook is in a position where they have public shareholders wanting this great Mecca of the “Internet Age” to start churning out some greenbacks for them. And today, in 2014, we’ve already seen the most obvious results. There are more text ads interrupting one’s feed, and things that are ‘trending’ are usually consumer goods–– not cultural changes. Facebook recently announced a plan to run video ads this year and already started testing their effectiveness on third-party mobile sites. But maybe this makes sense to some; of course nobody likes ads but at the end of the day Zuckerberg’s got to eat right?

However this plan spawned a larger problem. Because Facebook is a social networking site, and not a search site such as Google or YouTube, Facebook’s ads get substantially less traffic than those other sites. So little traffic in fact, that the click through rate for Facebook ads is 0.051%. Compare that with Google or Amazon whose average rates are at 0.4% and 5% respectively, and you can see why Facebook has become so panicked for money.

However, Facebook does have a solution to this revenue problem. Let’s back up for a second. So you’re on Facebook and a friend just wrote an awesome review of Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest film endeavor for the Knight Errant. You think more people should read it. So you hop on your Facebook page, copy and paste that bad boy, and viola! Instant publicity to your 500 friends. Except probably not. Because of the way Facebook works now, and—spoiler—has worked for some time now, unless a certain number of your closest friends interacts with or likes your post, that post will stay hidden from the rest of your friends. This goes on through several cycles before all of your friends can see your post. But don’t worry because if you desperately want to spread the word about Leonardo DiCaprio, you can pay to promote your post. Yes, that’s right. You can be an actual advertisement just for your friends…if you have the cash.

This is bad for a number of reasons. First, most people don’t have the money to promote their posts. As Jones said, Bosnia doesn’t have roads but they do have Facebook. So this encompassing, distance-shrinking technology is useless, if you don’t interact all the time with your Bosnian friends. This is the opposite of connectivity.

Secondly, this further prolongs a socio-phenomenon called the echo-chamber effect, wherein you only hear the voices you like and agree with because those are the only ones you interact with. This is a growing trend on the Internet as trolls and polarization continue to isolate, and in some cases, radicalize online discourse. Without that crucial exposure to different and constructive views, we run the risk of becoming ignorant to the world around us.

Here’s what’s so strange about this though—apart from the fact that all of this is bizarre. The primary motivation of social networks is to bring people together. We’ve seen the dramatic roles that Facebook and other sites can have on everything from the Arab Spring to the Human Rights Campaign for LGBT marriage equality. An open social network seems to be one of the most globalizing, game-changing effects of the Internet Age. But now these very networks that were founded by those who felt excluded to create an inclusive social experience have “caved to the Man” and are as driven by profit as any other corporation or business.

Now am I saying that all social networks are giant money monsters sucking up all your hard earned cash? Of course not. Sites like Twitter or Tumblr are far better examples a company’s  ability to avoid compromising the user’s content for corporate profit, and there is significant evidence that Twitter is poised to overtake Facebook in the coming years. Although Facebook has a responsibility to its shareholders, compromising the integrity of their mission might not be the best way to do that.