If the old adage about insanity, defined as doing the same thing over and over again with the expectation of a different result, is true, what should we think of Mark Zuckerberg’s latest idea to save his company?
As reports BloombergZuckerberg on Thursday called a comprehensive virtual meeting at Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent company, and urged employees to focus on the company’s short video service. Dubbed Reels, the service is a copycat of TikTok, the hugely popular social media video platform.
If Zuckerberg is taking this seriously, it indicates he may be running out of ideas on how to keep his company growing. The last time Facebook actively used video, the result was disastrous. More on this a little later.
Unless our civilization fundamentally collapses, we will never stop writing and reading.
— Tech writer Tim Carmody, advising video to be wary in 2016.
The urgency of Zuckerberg’s message to the troops was not hard to understand. The stock market completely killed Meta shares in Thursday trading on the Nasdaq. Shares fell $85.24, or 26.4%.
The $251 billion drop in market capitalization is an unprecedented one-day drop not only for the company, but for the US stock market as a whole. Meta shares also tumbled broader market indices, with the Nasdaq high-tech composite falling 3.74% and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index down 2.44%.
Meta’s market troubles developed after the company reported unexpectedly poor results for the fourth quarter of 2021 and presented a bleaker outlook than investors had expected.
Zuckerberg made it clear to investors that the company’s traditionally stronger advertising platforms are showing their age and suffering from the privacy improvements Apple has implemented for iPhone and iPad users. Apple’s changes will cost Meta $10 billion in revenue this year, or about 8.5% of the company’s revenue in 2021.
What might be most intriguing about Zuckerberg’s response is his suggestion that the company switch back to video. This is not his first attempt to change the Facebook market. In October, when he renamed the company to Meta Platforms, he said the name signified the company’s new focus on virtual reality devices.
It’s appropriate to recall what happened the last time the company promoted video as its future.
This was in 2016. Facebook CEO Nicola Mendelsohn shook up the online world when she said: “If we look already, we see a year-long decline in text messages… If I was betting, I would say: video, video, video. ”
Mendelsohn said that this happened because “the best way to tell stories in this world where we are bombarded with so much information is through video. It transmits much more information in a much faster period. So actually the trend helps us absorb a lot more information.”
Mendelssohn, as was obvious even then to many observers, was blowing smoke. While Facebook clearly made a big commercial bet on video, it was 100% wrong in the real world.
Video is a low-information and linear medium: you need to watch the entire clip, usually in real time, in order to collect all the relevant information contained in it. A block of text, however, can be scanned for important information in a fraction of the time. The video requires almost full attention; the text can be absorbed while the reader is turning to other media such as music.
As technical writer Tim Carmody noted in response to Mendelssohn, “Text is surprisingly elastic… It’s cheap, it’s flexible, it’s invisible. The human brain processes this absurdly well.” He concluded that “unless our civilization fundamentally collapses, we will never stop writing and reading.” He was right.
More fitting for Meta’s proposed strategy was that Facebook’s turn to video proved to be a disaster for the media and advertising industry as they followed the company that had the dominant influence in these worlds at the time off a cliff.
As I noticed in 2019 when the consequences became clear, based on what Facebook described as a commitment to becoming a “video-only” platform, the media companies dependent on its roughly 2 billion audience plunged into video production.
News organizations fired text reporters and editors en masse, making room for videographers and producers. Many of these organizations quickly discovered that, despite Facebook’s claims, they were feeding their own audience a product they didn’t need. Website traffic drop.
About a year later, several online publishers who switched to video decreased again – partly because Facebook decided to downplay videos from third-party sites on its pages.
It’s entirely possible that the online market has changed since then, with video once again being the highlight of the month or year. But despite Zuckerberg’s concerns about TikTok, there are hints that TikTok’s variety of online videos may not be able to provide all the nutrition that the general public craves and advertisers appreciate.
Many TikTok clips are around 15 seconds long, which may be optimal for the service’s young audience, although they can be spliced together to create videos up to three minutes long.
So maybe Zuckerberg is right. But history advises skepticism. What he says today is not unlike what he said five years ago when he proclaimed a “new golden age of video” that never came.