Facebook Struggles to Stop Decline in ‘Original’ Sharing

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.

The Takeaway
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.)

Image title

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.

Various Tactics

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.


Amir Efrati is executive editor at The Information, which he helped to launch in 2013. Previously he spent nine years as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, reporting on white-collar crime and later about technology. He can be reached at [email protected] and is on Twitter @amir
Get access to exclusive coverage
Read deeply reported stories from the largest newsroom in tech.
Latest Articles
 
The Weekend
Can Livestream Shopping Cure the Holiday Gifting Blues?
Images of live-shopping app NTWRK. Illustration by Mike Sullivan. Photo courtesy of NTWRK.
Hi, welcome to the Weekend.It might seem against the holiday spirit to say so, but does anyone really love gift-shopping these days? Even pre-pandemic, it was a stress-inducing affair, loaded with decision fatigue, toy-of-the-year FOMO and ghosts of bad presents past.Into this consumerist minefield has stumbled a strange new entrant: livestream shopping. In this week’s issue, writer Janet...
Latest Briefs
 
Tech Stocks Fall as New Covid Variant Leads to Market Sell-Off
Quarterly Results From Meituan and Pinduoduo Highlight Challenges for China Tech
China’s Government Asks Didi Global to Devise Plan to Delist From U.S.
Stay in the know
Receive a summary of the day's top tech news—distilled into one email.
Access on the go
View stories on our mobile app and tune into our weekly podcast.
Join live video Q&A’s
Deep-dive into topics like startups and autonomous vehicles with our top reporters and other executives.
Enjoy a clutter-free experience
Read without any banner ads.
Clockwise from left: Victoria Beasley of Prelude Ventures, Amy Francetic of Buoyant Ventures, Joshua Posamentier of Congruent Ventures, Ben Kortlang of G2VP and Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Venture Capital Startups
Five Climate Tech Investors to Watch
These are busy times for the venture capital investors backing startups tackling a range of tough-to-crack climate problems, from global warming to a shortage of clean water.
Gift Hunting E-commerce
The Information’s Top Tech-Adjacent Gifts for 2021
This year, there is no shortage of material—and immaterial—ways to show people you care.
FTC Chair Lina Khan. Photo by Bloomberg.
Exclusive
FTC Privacy Probe of Amazon Ring Puts Khan’s Agenda in the Spotlight
Federal Trade Commission staffers earlier this year recommended filing a lawsuit against Amazon over alleged privacy and data security breaches within Amazon’s Ring home security business, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation.
Dan Morehead, founder and chief executive officer of Pantera Capital, in Beverly Hills, Calif., in October. Photo by Bloomberg
Exclusive Crypto Venture Capital
More Institutional Investors Embrace Crypto VCs as Pantera Capital Raises $600 Million
Pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, endowments and other institutional sources of capital used to shy away from cryptocurrencies over concerns about their use in illicit activity.
Amazon’s Growing Influencer Ambitions; An Instagram Thread Trend
Creator Economy
Amazon’s Growing Influencer Ambitions; An Instagram Thread Trend
Amazon has emerged as a key player in the creator economy, from its gaming live-streaming service Twitch to the Clubhouse competitor it is reportedly working on.
Poshmark's signage at the Nasdaq when the company when public. Photo by Bloomberg.
E-commerce
Poshmark’s Slowdown Casts Doubt on Social Shopping’s Potential
This should be Poshmark’s moment. The online merchant is at the center of a burgeoning social shopping explosion, as a growing number of startups and social media firms promote creators as sellers of either new or used goods.