Why Facebook became overly friendly

The social network is acting like that friend who plies you with drinks, compliments, and emoji in the hope you’ll spill some gossip.

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Facebook really, really wants you to post a status. Not a link, not a news story, not a "share". It wants a piece of you: an original thought, or a photo, straight from your head or your life. And it’s deploying ever-stranger tactics to get you to do it.

First, there were the greetings. Users began seeing messages adorned with pictures of a manic-looking anthropomorphised flower, welcoming them to the site every day.

Some users, perhaps less regular ones, got a notification elbowing them to take a look at Facebook’s new, friendly persona.

Then, Facebook began to suggest what you should broadcast to your friends. At some point in the summer of 2015 (it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly, as these features are generally shown piecemeal to different groups of users) the status bar began to show lists of “suggested topics” in the form of hashtags. One user’s status box contained the mysterious message: “The Cavaliers [a basketball team] are playing today. What’s on your mind?” An emoji of a basketball floated alongside. 

My Facebook page keeps asking me to fill out details of exactly when I attended my university, and maintains that my profile is “incomplete” until I do so. It recently suggested gently that my months-old profile picture was out of date. “Choose a recent photo of yourself,” it advised, “to show people who you are now”.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook’s attempts to seem more human often come across as anything but. If anything, it now seems like that friend who plies you with drinks, compliments, and emoji in the hope you’ll spill some gossip over a martini, or say something indiscreet about a mutual friend.

Your friend might have their reasons for wanting your secrets, but what is Facebook’s motivation? Data obtained by tech site The Information this month may shed some light. According to internal content data seen by the site, the amount of “original sharing” (ie.. original statuses and photos) has plummeted by up to 21 per cent year-on-year as of mid-2015.

(In a statement, Facebook told The Information that "the overall level of sharing has remained not only strong, but similar to levels in prior years”.)

Crucially, overall engagement numbers and even posting numbers on Facebook are healthy – but it’s the type of content we’re posting that has changed. It’s an internet truism that authenticity and personal stories sell: “Facebook stalking” has become such a universal symbol of the modern age because it drives at a deep human urge to know about others’ lives. Personal essays are surefire traffic winners, to the point where female writers are being exploited for their stories online.

One explanation for Facebook’s crisis of the self could lie in a shift towards image, rather than text-based sharing. Huge uptake on Facebook-owned Instagram and instant image-sharing app Snapchat have been the real social media story in the past year. Facebook, meanwhile, has recently begun pumping money into live-streamed video, similar to Periscope, perhaps to encourage us to directly stream our lives onto the site instead of onto rival platforms.

In fact, almost every new feature over the past couple of years seems primed to make us more comfortable, and therefore more likely to confide. The new Facebook “reactions” allow users to give personalised feedback to your posts. The “On this Day” feature begged us to at least re-share personal pictures from years ago, if we weren’t going to post anything new.

And yet, we continue not to share. We continue to clam up.

Sarah Frier at Bloomberg guesses that as the network gets older, the attraction of spur-of-the-moment connections offered by the site has waned.  “As Facebook ages, users may have more than a decade’s worth of acquaintances added as friends. People may not always feel comfortable checking into a local bar or sharing an anecdote from their lives, knowing these updates may not be relevant to all their connections.”

The posting of self-centred statuses, while positive for Facebook’s engagement levels and dedicated Facebook stalkers, may also not pay off for the user. A study conducted by Gwendolyn Seidman of Albright College in 2014 suggested that those who pour out their emotions online don’t always get positive feedback.

Those who posted in this way “do not receive more wall posts from others in response to their greater expressiveness”, she found. Seidman also guesses that “there could be a disconnect between the levels of self-disclosure with which these users and their friends are comfortable”. As such, we’re being trained to be a little more private, a little more circumspect online – just as those who “overshare” in real life are told to be more quiet, less “out there”. Society revels in personal information, but also punishes those who share it too often.

In Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City, she points out that in the early days of the internet, which she calls “web 1.0”, it was both celebrated and criticised for its impermanence and spontaneity. Yet as time went on, it became clear that the web is actually a machine of permanence, where “data has consequences and nothing is ever lost, not arrest logs, not embarrassing photos, not Google searches”. I’d argue that social media has experienced a similar narrative arc.

We now acknowledge this permanence around both the web in general and on social media in particular, which is perhaps why the social platforms we entrust with our personal lives are more edited and heightened (Instagram) or more genuinely private and spontaneous (Snapchat). Facebook is now a place of legacy, where you collect friends through your life, and are even mourned in your death. A random outpouring of personal thought would seem out of place – even foolhardy.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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