Less than a year ago, leaders at Facebook convened to address a serious problem: people using the social network were posting fewer things about their personal lives for their friends to see, according to confidential company data about several types of content sharing that happen on Facebook, which was viewed by The Information.
Thus began an effort to deal with this long-term threat to Facebook’s primary moneymaker, the News Feed. Facebook set up a team in London to help develop a strategy to stop the double-digit decline in “original” sharing that happens on Facebook, according to four people with knowledge of the situation.
Facebook is trying to confront a double-digit decline in the most important kind of content that people post on the social network. It’s been working on ways to reverse the slide, with limited success that could have long term implications for the health of its News Feed.
Wednesday's extension of Live Video to all users is the latest move to increase sharing of original content. But Facebook has also tweaked the algorithm governing what kind of posts people see in their News Feed so that original posts play a bigger part. Facebook’s Android app was redesigned to make it easier for people to post. These moves so far have slowed the decline. But not by much.
A Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement: “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.”
That comment might be true, but it overlooks one type of sharing that’s more important than the rest, and how it’s ailing.
As of mid-2015, total sharing had declined by about 5.5% year over year while “original broadcast sharing” was down 21% year over year, the confidential data show. Original posts are personal in nature as opposed to popular media like links to news sites. Original broadcasts are the most critical kind of content on Facebook because they bring the most engagement. Think of when people announce engagements or babies; those posts always get the most comments and “likes.” The sharing problem was particularly acute with Facebook users under 30 years of age who were sharing much less than they were a year earlier compared with people over 30, according to the data.
As of earlier this year, original broadcast sharing was down roughly 15% year over year, says one person familiar with the figure.
Several months ago, CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed these problems in remarks to employees at a quarterly all-hands, saying content production needed to go up, according to one person.
Long Term Threat
The decline in original posts doesn’t pose an imminent, existential threat to Facebook. The core product is still growing in terms of the number of users and Facebook has found more ways for people to see engaging things in their News Feed, like viral videos. But if people don’t feel the need to contribute their own content, there may be less-compelling posts for people to view over time. That could gradually erode usage of Facebook.
Several factors are blamed for the decline. One is the growth in the number of “friends” people have in their Facebook network. Over time, the company has strived to get its users to increase the number of people they connect with, often asking them to look at a list of suggested people they might know. But as friends groups have grown, it’s made Facebook feel like a much less intimate place to share things than it used to. Add to that the increase in the number of news articles and advertisements and you get a situation where a cool hangout becomes a bustling metropolis. (These images below illustrate the situation perfectly.)
Another factor in the decline is that some sharing activity has shifted to messaging, and to competitors like Snapchat, which has trained people to quickly shoot and share numerous video “snaps” per day.
The effect is that most original posts appear to come from a minority of users. Around 57% of Facebook users who used the app every week posted something in a given week, the confidential data show. But only 39% of weekly active users posted original content in a given week, and 6% of weekly active people posted to a specific group of friends as opposed to the News Feed. People who posted original content generally did so five times per week, on average.
Another factor in the decline is that some sharing activity has shifted to messaging, and to competitors like Snapchat, which has trained people to quickly shoot and share numerous video “snaps” per day. Facebook is big in messaging, of course, owning both Messenger and WhatsApp, the latter of which has more than a billion monthly active users. But neither of those properties make money for Facebook yet. (And given the way WhatsApp encrypts communications and doesn’t store it on its servers, it’s hard to measure exactly what kind of sharing is happening there.) So it behooves Facebook to fix the sharing problem on News Feed.
The sharing problem also has significatly hurt Instagram as it has grown, according to people familiar with the issue. The photo-sharing app, which has more than 200 million daily active users, also suffers from the fact that it takes much longer to post an image or video there than on Facebook because of the multiple screens a person must click through, such as whether they want to add a photo filter or share the image or video to other social networks.
Mike Hudack, a former Facebook ads product manager, last year took over the new Facebook unit in London devoted to the sharing problem. It’s unclear exactly what the team came up with on its own. But Facebook has tried various tactics to boost sharing—some of them hidden, some of them obvious. These include the News Feed algorithm tweaks to make original posts more prominent, says one person familiar with the move. Facebook (and Instagram) also prompt people to share photos they’ve recently snapped from their phone, the instant they log on to the apps. (Some people find that prompt to be intrusive.) And on Android, people once had to click a button on the News Feed in order to bring up the box where they could compose an update to share with friends. Facebook changed it so the composition box would be available right away, with the line, "What's on your mind?"
Facebook also has developed new tools to give people ways to edit their photos and help them share photo albums and “notes.” It now sends reminders to people about holidays like Father’s Day to remind them to connect with their loved ones or post something about them. And it also periodically reminds people of original posts they made “On This Day” several years ago; sometimes, people will re-share those older posts and spark new conversations about them.
Mr. Hudack is leaving Facebook. He didn’t immediately have comment for this article.
Some at Facebook see those things as band-aid measures and are pessimistic about reversing the decline in the “original broadcast” metric because “normal” behavior on Facebook has changed as Facebook has gotten bigger. In other words, Facebook isn’t perceived as a safe place to post personal things as much as it used to be, these people say, and there’s no reason to think it can roll back the clock.