Late last week, after listening to Mark Zuckerberg’s remarks during Meta’s first-quarter earnings call, I wrote a column asserting that his aspirations to remake the company into the “world’s discovery engine” meant he really wants to be be Google.
I left out the part where he also wants to be TikTok.
While he or the other Meta execs on the call never mentioned TikTok, Wall Street analysts certainly did during the Q&A session at the end of the call. The reason was obvious from Zuckerberg’s remarks about Meta’s priorities.
In addition to the discovery engine part, he mainly talked about the transformation of Meta’s Facebook and Instagram into short-form video platforms vis a vis its TikTok clone format, “Reels.”
“Since I started Facebook 18 years ago, we've seen multiple shifts in the media types that people use,” Zuckerberg explained of the company’s efforts to catch up with TikTok’s short-form video dominance.
“We started as a website primarily with text, then people got phones with cameras and the main format became images on mobile apps. In the last several years, mobile networks have gotten faster and now video is the main way that people experience content online.
Short-form video is the latest iteration of this, and it's growing very quickly,” he explained.
The problem with this logic, as well as TikTok’s overarching success, is that it oversimplifies the nuances and complexities of how society uses media, because it effectively dumbs it down to simplistic, snackable content that people use to idle their time, not because it’s actually how people necessarily want to experience the world.
Like social games before it, short-form video falls into the same cynical content play that gaming industry insiders used to describe their format: “a time management device.”
I use the word "cynical" because content purveyors, especially ones developing or curating media content experiences on massive internet platforms, lead, as well as follow consumer trends, and they tend to leverage the lowest common denominator to do it.
Back in the 80s when network prime-time TV was the alpha medium, savvy NBC executive Paul Klein coined the phrase “least objectionable programming” to explain this phenomenon, and if you fast-forward to 2022, the concept is replaying itself online vis a vis TikTok and Meta’s push to make “Reels” the mass medium format of choice.
Instead of using mass media to inform, inspire and elevate humanity, the trend dumbs us down, idles our time, and serves as a mind-numbing distraction from the complexities of the modern society we live in.
Couple that with Zuckerberg’s other goal of advancing AI and machine learning to build the “world’s discovery engine” in order to optimize even more drivel, I fear for future generations of media consumers.
The truth is that media is often used like a drug. And as we’ve seen from the past couple of year’s of Congressional hearings, the drug can often lead to unintended consequences (like eating disorders, acute social anxiety disorder, self-esteem issues, and even self-harm and suicide), especially in young, developing minds.
Instead of utilizing the most powerful mass media platforms ever conceived to elevate society and make us smarter, they’re doling out the opiate of the masses.
Apparently, it’s also the most sponsorable ad-supported opiates, too.