Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Facebook is only 17 years old: If it were a person, it could drive but not drink. If Facebook were a person, it would also be fabulously wealthy, incredibly successful, and exhaustingly argumentative. And it probably wouldn’t use Facebook.
The disclosures in The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files,” leaked by a whistleblower named Frances Haugen, are incendiary. But one of them probably troubles the company’s executives more than yesterday’s service outage, the proliferation of fake news, or even suggestions that Facebook stoked the Capitol riot and violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar. According to the company’s own research, young people think Facebook is uncool. In a statement that will chill the heart of anyone who remembers cassette tapes and the original version of Baywatch, one 11-year-old boy told the company’s researchers: “Facebook is for old people—old as in 40.”
The statistics bear out that assessment. Five million U.S. teenagers log in to Facebook every day, compared with 22 million for Instagram, according to the materials leaked to The Journal. Most teens I know regard Facebook as the place where their parents go to argue about politics and their grandparents post vacation pictures. And which self-respecting member of Generation Z wants to hang out in an old folks’ home? So it’s goodbye to Boomerbook, and hello to TikTok or Instagram instead. (There is some consolation in this for the company because Instagram, like the messaging platform WhatsApp, is also owned by Facebook.)
Facebook’s gray shift should change how we talk about the company’s effect on society, and about social media more generally. This isn’t a young person’s problem. Yes, teenagers are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and the social contagions of suicide and self-harm. The “Facebook Files” included an internal study into how Instagram makes teenage girls feel about their body image (not good), while TikTok and YouTube appear to be driving sociogenic illness—what was once called mass hysteria—among the same demographic. But social-media companies are no longer new, and their users are no longer early adopters. Too much focus on impressionable youngsters obscures research such as the 2019 study of Facebook that found that people older than 65 were the most likely to share links to sites that regularly published false stories. (Around the 2016 presidential election, 11 percent of over-65ers shared links to fake news, but only 3 percent of those ages 18 to 29 did so.) Whatever social media is doing, it’s doing it to all of us.
In my own experience, young people who have never known a world without social media are more attuned to its downsides. They might have lived through a sexting scandal at school, or seen a video of bullying passed around by their peers on WhatsApp, and many correctly regard rage-tweeting as a risk equivalent to volunteering for land-mine clearance. One of Facebook’s own researchers found that older children counsel younger ones not to post content they might regret. The Journal quoted the researcher suggesting further studies “to understand if this influence over preteen sharing holds at scale. If it is common that teens are discouraging preteens from sharing, there are obvious implications for creation and the ecosystem both in the near and longer-term as preteens are the next generation coming onto the platform.”
Facebook is just not built for teenage lives. Mark Zuckerberg might have created its predecessor site to help horny Harvard students rate the hotness of people in nearby dormitories, but Facebook has now become a way to keep in touch with everyone we have left behind in life: the former flatmates, the ex-colleagues, the couples who have disappeared from parties since they had a baby. Facebook is partly about keeping up with people you used to know. You don’t have so many of those people when you’re 15.
The company is well aware of this gray shift and its potential consequences. The creepiest parts of the “Facebook Files” are the documents detailing the company’s attempts to create alternative products for ever-younger users. American law forbids the collection of consumer data on under-13s, so social-media companies cannot encourage or actively tolerate tweens using their adult platforms. That’s why Instagram discussed developing Instagram Kids—a platform for 10-to-12-year-olds—because, as Instagram head Adam Mosseri reasoned, “the reality is that kids are already online.” That venture has now been paused following a backlash.
But why stop at 10-year-olds? The “Facebook Files” also include an internal report from 2019 titled “Exploring Playdates as a Growth Lever,” focused on an app called Messenger Kids, for 6-to-12-year-olds, that has strong parental controls. The report tried to discover whether children were likely to promote Messenger Kids to one another while on playdates, and found that 68 percent of children did not, because their parents “view the app as a way for kids to communicate with others when they’re not together.” You can almost hear the irritation: Why do these brats keep using their flapping human face-holes? Don’t they know there’s a real market opportunity here?
Because these documents are intended for internal consumption, they do not attempt to disguise their fundamental premise. Ideally, Facebook would like you to join its “ecosystem” as soon as possible and then spend the rest of your life engaged with it. The company wants to form habits that turn preteens into customers forever. That’s not a unique strategy, of course, or necessarily an unethical one. But it really doesn’t sound good when someone says it out loud.
“A part of me feels like I’m interviewing the head of a tobacco company right now,” the CNN host Brian Stelter recently told Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications. Clegg called the comparison “profoundly false,” but it should concern him nonetheless, because it could stick. A wildly popular pastime, with emerging negative side effects, promoted by companies that want to get young people hooked as soon as possible? Certainly sounds like smoking. And in this analogy, Instagram Kids would be vaping—or maybe the cigarettes sneakily marketed to kids in the developing world. (In the CNN interview, Clegg argued that the leaked documents demonstrated that Facebook was taking problems on its platforms seriously by commissioning research into them, and that on Facebook “you see the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity. Our job is to mitigate the bad, reduce it, and amplify the good.” He added that critics underestimate the positive effects of social media: “There has to be a reason why a third of the world population uses these apps. They do it because they like exchanging their views, their feelings.”)
On one level, any talk about Facebook being in trouble is bizarre. The company has an enormous user base, strong profits, and a stock price that has doubled since 2017. But as Kevin Roose noted yesterday in The New York Times, there’s a disconnect between how Facebook is seen from the outside, like Godzilla stomping on Tokyo, and how it looks to disillusioned employees. “If these leaked documents proved anything, it is how un-Godzilla-like Facebook feels,” Roose wrote. “Insiders see a hundred small, disquieting signs of it every day—user-hostile growth hacks, frenetic pivots, executive paranoia, the gradual attrition of talented colleagues.”
This last point is crucial. The tech industry is in thrall to growth, and the unspoken corollary is that if you’re not on the way up, you must be on the way down. Buzz matters. Novelty matters. All tech unicorns compete for the best engineers, paying them well and guaranteeing amenities such as workplace Ping-Pong tables and on-site canteens. The competition for star coders is hot. When these workers can take their pick of lucrative jobs with great benefits, other considerations become more important, such as: Will my friends be jealous? How will I feel when I introduce myself to people and say what I do? Facebook has now lost whatever aura of punk utopianism it ever had back in the ’00s. It’s not the place you go to change the world; it’s where you go to make piles of money while feeling queasy about your choices.
Facebook might only be 17, but it feels much older. When its early investor Peter Thiel was invited to give a motivational talk after the company went public in 2012, he instead gave a sobering assessment of its impact on the world. “My generation was promised colonies on the moon,” said Thiel, after he was introduced by Zuckerberg. “Instead, we got Facebook.” The company used to be optimistic, full of potential, with a self-image as a rebellious upstart in flip-flops and a hoodie. Now it is richer and established, but out of shape, bloated, suffused with a vague sense of regret and missed opportunities, and forced to wear a suit for important meetings. There’s a phrase for what has happened to the company, as it has grown into a profitable platform filled with “old people—old as in 40.” Facebook is having a midlife crisis. It needs to learn how to age gracefully, because its dream of lost youth is hurting us all.