While spelling out his decision to make improving Facebook (FB) his "personal challenge for 2018," Mark Zuckerberg said he wants to make sure that "time spent on Facebook is time well spent."
Like the rest of the Facebook post in which Zuckerberg spelled out his 2018 challenge, there was a PR aspect to this line. Among other things, Facebook critics have argued that heavy usage of its core services is harmful to consumers -- that it contributes to social isolation and feelings of depression, creates echo chambers and grows exposure to false or misleading stories.
Insisting Facebook cares about the quality of time spent on it is good optics.
But there's also a business angle: As Facebook sees its ad inventory growth slow noticeably -- the result of limited growth in the company's news feed ad load -- it's eager to give consumers fresh reasons to spend more time on its core app and website. Improving the emotional satisfaction users derive from actively using its services certainly wouldn't hurt.
And in many ways, this isn't a brand-new effort by Facebook. Over the past 18 months or so, Zuckerberg and others had already outlined a number of efforts meant to change how the average user engages with Facebook.
A recent Facebook post on the company's findings about the impact of Facebook usage on mental health helps shine a light on how it views quality of time spent. Notably, the research found that those who passively consumed Facebook content -- reading and "liking" posts and articles, but not sharing posts, comments and messages of their own, reported seeing worse mental health on average. But "actively interacting" with others -- close friends especially -- was linked with improvements in well-being.
In some ways, the findings are more of a concern for Twitter (TWTR) , whose user growth issues are pretty well-known, than for Facebook. For the average user, a large percentage of Twitter activity involves passively consuming content from people one doesn't know, rather than interacting with others (never mind interacting with people one is close to). But with Facebook news feeds now filled with a lot of content from brands and celebrities, and with the company reportedly contending with reduced sharing of user-created content (status updates, photos, videos) by many users, it isn't immune to this problem either.
Facebook also hasn't ignored the problem: Since mid-2016, the company has rolled out a series of news feed algorithm updates that give greater priority to user-created content than content shared by followed Pages (this has had the side-benefit of giving the owners of those Pages an incentive to pay to promote their content on Facebook). And though this is a dual-edged sword, Facebook has also gotten more aggressive about notifying users when a "friend" has shared something it thinks could be of interest.
Facebook's efforts to foster more user interactions also extend to its video strategy. Though the company has begun spending heavily to license and finance content for its Watch video platform, Zuckerberg has stressed Facebook wants video viewing on its app to have a strong social element to it.
"[T]oo often right now, watching a video is just a passive consumption experience," he said on Facebook's third-quarter earnings call. "Time spent is not a goal by itself. We want the time people spend on Facebook to encourage meaningful social interaction. So we're going to focus our products on all the ways to build community around the videos that people share and watch. That's something Facebook can uniquely do."
Likewise, after doing a cross-country road trip that raised speculation about political ambitions, Zuckerberg stated on the second-quarter earnings call that fostering the growth of Facebook Groups that strengthen real-world communities is now a priority. He asserted that over 100 million Facebook users (still only less than 5% of its monthly active user base) took part in such groups, and that the company's goal "is to help more than 1 billion people join meaningful communities."
Last but not least, there's Zuckerberg's promise, also made on the Q3 call, to make giant investments in both people and technology (read: algorithms) make Facebook a safer and more welcoming place. He declared the effort would span everything from "finding bad actors and bad behavior" to "removing false news, hate speech, bullying, and other problematic content," and that the number of people working inside and outside of Facebook on these issues would double to 20,000 in 2018.
Certainly, such moves aim to win Facebook some applause, or at least less criticism, from those in the tech press, Congress and elsewhere who have been frequently taking aim at the company's practices. But if they boost Facebook's customer satisfaction levels, leading more consumers to look at its app less as a time-waster or a necessary "utility" for keeping in touch with friends and family, and more as a service that they get genuine enjoyment from (sometimes, anyway), then the moves also stand to boost user engagement rates.
In which case, Wall Street would have reason to applaud as well.
This column originally appeared on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get more great columns like this.
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