Facebook and Instagram grabbed headlines Thursday for releasing a feature designed to help users cut down on mindless scroll time on their apps. The move is intended to ensure that the companies’ two billion-plus users turn to their products out of ‘love’ and not chronic boredom or addiction, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom told Recode.
As Kurt Wagner at Recode points out, this mirrors a number of moves Facebook has made this year to create a more fulfilling user experience that leaves us feeling like our time on the social app is “time well spent,” a nebulous phrase that Facebook seems to define as doing what it has always superficially intended to do: connect friends, significant others, and families.
My first question is whether time well spent includes connections between users and the hundreds of thousands of advertisers, from small businesses to global corporations, who sustain Facebook with their advertising dollars. Does it include the news organizations whose role on the platform has vexed Facebook so much since 2016?
But behind these questions is an even more fundamental one. If we used Facebook only to connect with friends and family, how much would we use it at all?
It’s common knowledge, at least among people belonging to advertisers’ most coveted age demographic, 18–25, that Facebook is no longer and hasn’t for a long time been the place where users share daily life updates. For younger users, Facebook statuses are used to share news articles, political rants, or maybe a cool blog post found during other time semi-mindlessly browsing the Web.
Sharing statuses about personal information beyond major life changes—getting a new job, getting engaged, moving cities—is approximate to a social faux pas.
This nugget of common knowledge among young people certainly corresponds to the news that Facebook is shedding the young users who will determine its longevity (or lack thereof).
It also raises what will perhaps be an existential question for Facebook in years to come: If its advertisers’ most coveted users are opening its app mainly to scroll through News Feed while waiting for lattés or click on the stray cat video, and if the company truly wants time spent on its app to be “time well spent,” what future does its core mission have?
Joe Zappa is Street Fight’s managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @joe_zappa.