Facebook will soon be unrecognisable from the social network it once was

Media giant will mop up even more ad money as it spends big on original content

Facebook’s Messenger Kids app aims to offer children under 13 a safe chat and video calling service with full parental control.

 

In a year’s time, or two, or three, what will Facebook look like? What will it be?

The media giant is reportedly preparing to spend up to $1 billion on original content including live sports deals in 2018, as the “content wars” between Amazon, Netflix, Facebook’s fellow content newbie Apple, and the rest of the industry reach a potentially bloody zenith.

To someone who time-travelled to 2017 from the mid-Noughties, Facebook, as a user experience, would be unrecognisable. Now more and bigger change is coming.

Facebook, the website where people played FarmVille, has become Facebook, the company eyeing up the rights to live English Premier League matches. The company, which made it its mission to implore users to “share” their content to “connect” with others, is now paying for professionals to make the stuff.

It has been out and about briefing the advertising industry about Watch, its new tab for shows, which it started to roll out in the United States this summer and is expected to launch properly next year.

‘Hero’ shows

While other publishers and producers can find an audience through Watch, Facebook will also fund its own original series, both short-form and “hero” shows (regular television episodes). It says this will “help inspire creators and seed the ecosystem”, which translated means its advertising cash registers will be sent into a new and escalating clatter of ker-chings.

Billed as a competitor to Google’s YouTube, Watch will be going up against every player in the content business in the battle for eyeballs. In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about the strategy. Facebook, already a large-scale magnet for advertisers’ custom, is naturally planning for the next stage of its expansion to support its $500 billion-plus market capitalisation.

Among the web-sceptical, the line `if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold' went viral in 2010 because it cutely summarised the fast-amassing data power of companies such as Facebook

Notwithstanding its recent success mopping up (alongside Google) most of the growth in the digital ad market, the potential revenue limitation often stated around the time of its initial public offering (IPO) in 2012 – that you can fit only so many ads on a mobile screen – hasn’t quite gone away.

Watch, with its in-stream ad formats, is a logical path for Facebook to expand its advertising universe.

But on this journey from social network to tech “disrupter” to advertising behemoth to entertainment financier, some of Facebook’s original assertions and assumptions have been quietly jettisoned.

Long gone, of course, are the days when Facebook was merely another desktop time-waster for pre-smartphone afternoons, widely agreed to be better than MySpace or Bebo, but still suspected of being a fad that would expire before its first profit.

Its first attempts at incorporating advertising in users’ news feeds, in November 2007, were explained in the New York Times with a vintage example: “Going forward, a Facebook user who rents a movie on Blockbuster.com will be asked if he would like to have his movie choice broadcast out to all his friends on Facebook. And those friends would have no choice but to receive that movie message, along with an ad from Blockbuster.”

It turns out that ads from Blockbuster were not really something that anyone would have to worry about.

This initial ad experiment was met with a minor backlash that now seems both quaint, given the step-up in commercial messaging that was to come, and prescient: Yes, soon we really would all be willingly inflicting ads on our friends and family on social media.

News feed algorithm

But it didn’t end there. Advertisers were the first to notice how the many updates of Facebook’s news feed algorithm were changing the company. Once the pitch – the dream – had been centred on “organic reach”, which was what social media marketers could achieve if they were a dab hand at using “join the conversation”-style posts to spread their message of brand-love for free. After 2012, whatever merits this activity possessed started to wither. To keep its reach up, brands had to – shock, horror – pay Facebook, just as they would any other medium.

Among the web-sceptical, the line “if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” (by Andrew Lewis) went viral in 2010 because it cutely summarised the fast-amassing data power of companies such as Facebook.

Interestingly, close versions of this same sentiment had been expressed decades earlier in relation to mass marketing on television. Media has long been based on the premise of selling audiences to advertisers. The difference is that Silicon Valley has the tools to weaponise the process like never before.

And still, even as it prepares for a 2018 in which it will mimic the content activities of the broadcasting industry that predates it, Facebook likes to deny that it is a media company. Perhaps it will take a headline such as “Gary Lineker to present Facebook’s live Premier League matches” to make this impossible once and for all.