When Facebook started out, it’s mission was to be a social network that would connect college classmates and friends and soon also caught on as a social medium to communicate with family and loved ones all over the world. While I was not a college student by any means when I joined Facebook a year after it launched, my reason for joining was to keep up with family, friends and business associates.
For the first five years of Facebook’s existence, this was who their primary audience was, and they catered to these peoples needs by adding contextual content and contextual ads. By 2010, their audience had hit close to 220 million users, and the types of people using the platform started to expand exponentially. Businesses, media outlets, brands, and other organizations, began to discover that Facebook was an excellent way to get to their customers and started taking Facebook from its social media roots to one that was more like a publishing platform for content that allowed people to interact directly with any Facebook member.
However, I believe that it was the Arab Spring in January 2011 where Facebook moved from a social media platform to becoming a full-fledged publishing platform. Since then it has expanded partnerships with all types of media publications, businesses and brands and gets most of its revenue from ads. However, because of the role, it played in the Arab Spring uprising, Facebook morphed even further into the world of politics and had allowed all types of players to make political comments, place political ads and spread fake news, much of it of political nature.
The Arab Spring ended up serving two purposes for those with political agendas. First, it allowed them to present a rallying cry for those supporting some political action and, in the case of the Arab spring uprising, it was a call to arms which toppled the leaders in Egypt.
However, it also gave those who had opposite positions a new vehicle to spread their agenda and took to Facebook to promote their views using any means possible, including propaganda and false news tailored to support their position.
I believe that under Facebook’s current rules and regulations, the role it plays in influencing political agenda’s cannot be solved under their current terms of service, and they need to adjust their rules around more publishing focused business models to continue to grow. If they served more like a publishing platform using the kind of journalistic regulations deployed by the top newspapers and magazine publishers today, they could get control of what type of material gets to their customers.
I realize this is very controversial, but I no longer believe Facebook can thrive under its current policies. For example, can you imagine Alex Jones ever being allowed to publish his content in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? He would never be allowed to do this because these publishers have a code of ethics and rules and regulations that drive what can and cannot be published on their pages. That is why I believe Facebook has to come to grips on their role as a publishing medium and put stricter controls in place to keep false news and propaganda off of their site the same way mainstream publishers control their content today.
Another way they could keep the company growing, even if they add stricter rules and controls around their main site, is to develop what I call vertical channels that become spin-outs from Facebook itself. If you look at Instagram, one of their properties, you could consider this a vertical channel now. Its focus is just on sharing pictures. Moreover, to a degree, its Oculus program with its dedicated apps and services can be viewed as a vertical channel too, although it will eventually play a key role inside Facebook’s virtual VR rooms in the future.
If you broadly scan Facebook today, you see posts from people showing off DIY projects, food and recipes, and all types of hobbies and interests. At the moment these are not organized or even grouped into dedicated like -mind programs. However, what if they were? What if Facebook had a channel just for those who love Italian Food and recipes and brought together people on Facebook to participate. It would attract ads form companies touting Italian food supplies, travel to Italy. As a diver, I would like to find like-minded diver friends where we can share our interests and see what’s new in dive gear and related products and services such as dive trip locations and diving holiday packages.
I realize there are dozens of these vertical sites for food, diving, and more, already. However, imagine if Facebook could tap into the special interests of its 2.5 billion users and bring millions of them together around a dedicated hobby or interest. It could drive even more targeted revenue and allow them to diversify beyond their current social media focus, which as I stated above, needs to be recognized as a publishing platform to give them more control over what content can and cannot be posted over their site.
Facebook has gone well beyond its social network focus and is much more than that for all types of peoples and groups. However, without stricter rules and regulations guiding its future, I do not think it can continue to grow any further. In my view, putting more controls in place that tracks the way publishers deal with the content allowed on their site would be the first step to stem the tide of people leaving the platform or becoming less engaged. However, adding vertical channels could be the ticket that could keep them growing while still serving and not angering their current users.