By Sarah Frier
It’s been about a year since Rishi Gorantala deleted the Facebook app from his phone, and the company has only gotten more aggressive in its emails to win him back. The social network started out by alerting him every few days about friends that had posted photos or made comments—each time inviting him to click a link and view the activity on Facebook. He rarely did.
Then, about once a week in September, he started to get prompts from a Facebook security customer-service address. “It looks like you’re having trouble logging into Facebook,” the emails would say. “Just click the button below and we’ll log you in. If you weren’t trying to log in, let us know.” He wasn’t trying. But he doesn’t think anybody else was, either.
“The content of mail they send is essentially trying to trick you,” said Gorantala, 35, who lives in Chile. “Like someone tried to access my account so I should go and log in.”
Facebook, which has more than 2 billion people logging in monthly, has never failed to grow its user base. To beat investors’ expectations consistently on user numbers, it’s just as important for the company to retain people like Gorantala as it is to recruit new members. People who are logging into Facebook less often—but aren’t fully disconnected—are noticing more and more frequent prompts to come back, sometimes multiple times a day, via emails or text messages reminding them what they’re missing out on, according to screenshots and reports from users around the world. Gorantala, who eased off his Facebook usage because of privacy concerns, said his security prompt comes “whenever I don’t log in for a few days.”
Even with regular users, Facebook has become thirstier for posts. The social network’s reminder boxes at the top of the news feed, which often show memories or anniversaries of friendship with close pals, have recently become real estate for more trivial milestones—like being tagged in 10 photos with someone or getting 100 heart reactions.
Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said earlier this year that Facebook was going to rethink the formula for its news feed to put an emphasis on posts from friends and family, downplaying content from brands and media. The company will emphasize “time well spent,” aiming for meaningful interactions that will be better for users long-term. It cautioned that the changes could cause some measures of engagement to go down, because people may spend less time on the app reading articles and watching videos.
But engagement may have been a concern for Zuckerberg before the announcement. While the company has said it sees positive trends, it hasn’t updated a statistic on how much time people spend on its properties since the first quarter of 2016. Minutes spent on the site in the U.S. are declining, according to measurements by both Nielsen and Comscore, even if the trend is healthy globally. In the third quarter, the growth in daily users was the slowest ever.
“You could argue that the actions they announced were in response to what they were observing,” said Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research. “Given how big they are, you’re going to run into a wall at some point.”
Facebook’s financial results are showing no signs of struggle so far. Analysts project Facebook on Wednesday will report another quarter of record sales, bringing annual revenue to $40.3 billion. There’s still plenty of room to grow in the mobile-advertising market, which Facebook dominates alongside Alphabet Inc.’s Google, the digital-ad leader. This quarter, revenue will probably see a boost from people watching video ads.
And no matter what happens with the flagship Facebook app, the company owns several other huge platforms for communicating with friends—Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger— that are just starting to seriously generate revenue.
Still, investors are watching for any comments or clues about audience growth and user habits. Bumps in the trend line are a reminder that Facebook’s continued dominance is not inevitable, and any protracted decline in engagement could eventually curb its appeal to advertisers.
In order to count as a monthly active user, someone must have logged into or shared content on Facebook at least once in the last 30 days of the quarter. Facebook’s biggest barrier to growth is its already-unprecedented size. The internet, in total, has about 3.6 billion users. For the roughly 1.6 billion of those who aren’t regular Facebook users, almost half are likely in China, where Facebook is banned by the government. For the rest, it’s unclear how many do have accounts that they just don’t use, or decided to delete. “Nobody would ever talk about that,” Wieser said.
Facebook says there are “many reasons” why users might get notifications from the company. “We’re always looking for ways to help people access their accounts more quickly and easily, especially when there are notifications from friends they may have missed,” spokeswoman Lisa Stratton said in an email. The security emails are “not a re-engagement tactic,” the company said.
The new mini-celebrations, for occasions such as a milestone number of photos tagged with a particular friend, were rolled out in August because focus groups told Facebook they liked celebrating memories. The Menlo Park, California-based company said it had nothing to add on its engagement numbers.
It’s standard for all types of companies to use email and text messages to re-engage their customers. Facebook’s stand out for their frequency and personalization, users said. The company does it because it works.
Kuldeep Patil, 32, deleted the app from his phone many months ago and says he gets at least two messages wooing him back each day. They used to be related to people that were interacting with his account, tagging him in photos or inviting him to like pages. “Kuldeep, you have 90 new notifications, 6 messages, 1 poke and 4 group invites,” a typical subject line reads, from an email he got in December.
Like Gorantala, Patil, who lives in India, decreased his usage due to concerns over Facebook tracking his activity. He said the messages have gotten more annoying recently as they start to flag updates that he’s not even involved with—a person from his past commenting on his or her own photo, for example.
But sometimes, he admits, he’ll click.
“I guess that’s why I haven’t deleted the account yet,” Patil said. But after clicking, while he’s scrolling through the feed, he gets uncomfortable watching the “same bunch of people posting only good things.” He’ll close it quickly.
It’s that kind of activity—idle scrolling to compare one’s own life to others’—that even Facebook admits is depressing. As part of a reckoning over the company’s impact on society, Facebook released a study in December that acknowledged it could be harmful for people’s mental health to use the app passively, reading others’ posts without contributing or reacting. If people interact with their close friends, commenting and sharing, that can actually positively impact mental health, the study concluded. That helped inform Zuckerberg’s decision to focus on friends and family in the news feed.
In other words, the solution for the ills of Facebook, in Facebook’s academic opinion, is more Facebook. “It’s convenient,” said Judson Brewer, director of research at University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness, who has written about technology addiction. “It all sounds great, that they want to do this, but they still need to keep their user base because that’s how they make money.”
As Facebook has continued to grow, it’s given users many reasons for malaise. There was the situation that sparked the company’s re-thinking of its mission—the revelation that Russia had for months used the site to spread fake news and sow social discord around the 2016 U.S. presidential election—and also a sprinkling of mini-crises, like live-streamed violent videos and the uncovering of racist ad-targeting options. But several users said their reasons for tuning out Facebook usage were much simpler: It was overwhelming. It wasn’t fun. It was too public.
The longer people use Facebook, the more people they become connected with, and the less intimate the feed feels. Gorantala became conscious of how much the site knew about him, as well as his activity on the rest of the internet. He felt it would be too extreme to delete his Facebook account entirely. It still contained a record of photos of him, and some social contacts that weren’t on his phone.
Several others said they remained users, but not frequent ones, because they weren’t sure how to actually delete their accounts. On the website, a user has to put in a request to Facebook to have an account deleted. But many people choose the simpler “deactivate” option instead, which preserves all their data should they choose to come back. Brewer said his wife makes the choice to deactivate frequently, then gets the emails and comes back to Facebook.
Rogério Pereira, a user in Portugal, said among his friends it’s understood that there’s only one way to make sure you never go back.
“You must ask your friend to say you’re dead so they convert your account into a memorial,” he said.
Featured image courtesy: Pexels
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