As the Facebook Papers reveal a seemingly endless supply of skeletons in the social-media giant’s closet, Mark Zuckerberg made it clear during an earnings call on Monday that he’s dedicated to solving at least one of the major problems addressed by the massive leak. But it’s not the ongoing crisis surrounding misinformation, the company’s approval of authoritarian crackdowns, or even its human-trafficking problem. Instead, Zuck announced that Facebook would be “retooling” to make “serving young adults the North Star, rather than optimizing for older people.”
The announcement, made during his first public appearance since the scandal began, confirms what recent reporting — and anecdotal surveys of boomer relatives’ online habits — has already confirmed: As Facebook’s current user base ages, the company is having serious problems attracting a younger audience. According to internal documents published as part of the Facebook Papers, the number of teenage users has already dropped 13 percent since 2019. Forecasts suggest a cratering to come, with a 45 percent decline over the next two years — a number large enough to take a bite out of the total number of daily users, to say nothing of its ad revenue. Acknowledging the size of the concern and retooling effort, Zuckerberg said Monday that such a “shift will take years, not months.”
The internal documents on Facebook’s aging user base were provided to the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress by a former Facebook employee named Frances Haugen, the whistleblower behind the majority of the recent revelations. The documents reveal why Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, has been pushing to bring in younger users, including the recently mothballed Instagram Kids app aimed at children 13 and younger. Among the more publicized details from the leaked documents was the internal research showing that Instagram is more likely than other platforms to increase feelings of anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia among teenage girls.
As for the larger crisis unfurling, Zuckerberg was not ceding ground on Monday. A CEO with a less powerful grip might have been forced to admit that the consequences of the attention and the reasons for it are quite bad, instead of just planning to slap a new title on the company while denying the scale of the problem. “My view is what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively leak documents,” he said on the call on Monday, adding that Facebook’s own research is painting “a false picture of our company.”
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