Even if We Share Less, Facebook Is Cultivating a Virtual Landscape to Retain Our Attention

New devices, livestreaming, chatbots

Facebook wrapped up its annual F8 developers conference on Wednesday, making it clearer than ever that the company is invested in evolving from being simply known as a family of social-media properties. In fact, CEO Mark Zuckerberg's 10-year plan looks less like a digital platform and more like a gigantic, all-things-virtual landscape that's—among other things—part amusement park, part tech-utilities garden.

His Menlo Park, Calif.-based company wants to be leading the following frontiers: virtual-reality platforms and devices like Oculus Rift; 360-degree cameras; livestreaming—even with drones; Messenger chatbots and other forms of artificial intelligence; and wearables. Also this week, the social giant poached Google innovation exec Regina Dugan to lead a new department called Building 8, which will be devoted to bringing devices and other products to market in the coming years. Zuckerberg vowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Building 8 to champion Dugan's expertise in building products that combine the physical and digital worlds.

The moves come on the heels of a report from The Information that the sharing of personal stories among Facebook's 1.6 billion global users declined by 21 percent year-over-year when data were collected in mid-2015. Facebook countered by stating that sharing had been "similar to levels in prior years."

Yet, it's reasonable to see Facebook's attempts to create "new social" aims with Oculus Rift, cameras and chatbots as a nod to what many believe is an inevitable decline in user enthusiasm on its chief digital properties, namely Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. If social media posting isn't a big problem already, surely someday in the not-so-distant future it could be—the speed of change that swiftly brought Facebook international dominance could also bring it to its knees.

"You don't want to have everyone know everything that you share with your more intimate friends and family," said Betsy Sigman, professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business.

"Social media users are no longer interested in posting content about their personal lives for all of their so-called 'friends' to see," said Moran Zur, CEO at SafeBeyond, a digital time capsule website. "This trend poses a long-term threat to social media sites like Facebook, so they need to adapt fast or risk losing money or users' data."

Janice Suter, director of social media, GSD&M, said, "Facebook's slowdown of 'original sharing' is not surprising. The novelty and motivation to share personal information, in keeping with their mission of 'bringing people together,' has worn off for a lot of users who have been on the platform for as long as 10 years."

If users posting becomes a big problem for Facebook, Sigman suggested that the company already covered its base with Instagram and other platforms that stand to grow significantly for the foreseeable future. And then there's everything Zuckerberg and his term rolled out this week to retain eyeballs.

"I think Oculus Rift will help some day, but the apparatus needs to get lighter and easier to use before it really takes off," Sigman said. "I do think the others—Facebook Live, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp—will let Facebook capture new kinds of engagement."

The Long Game

At F8, Brittany Hunley, senior strategist, Erwin Penland, said that "Facebook made it clear that's it's playing the long game and while attracting younger users is part of it, it's not the full picture. Zuckerberg himself used a proud parenting moment to show how people could share personal moments using 360-degree video."

Consumer attention is at the center of these moves, so Facebook Inc. can remain a powerhouse in the marketing community for decades to come. For instance, Oculus Rift and the 360-degree camera, called Facebook Surround, appear to mesh notably well with the untapped potential of Facebook Live. The line of marketers to get a piece of all of that in the near future would probably stretch from Silicon Valley to the cattle ranches south of Fresno. Not to mention that the digital video market will total $14.8 billion by 2019, per eMarketer, based on what the researcher knew before the beginning of this year.

Other cash avenues are also being paved. Many researchers believe the worldwide VR hardware market will be worth around $3 billion by 2020. The untold millions that can be made in customer-service-based tech contracts thanks to Facebook Messenger chatbots—which are already being used by 1-800-Flowers.com and CNN—seem self-evident. (If they work, that is, as early reports are not flattering so far.) Paid advertising is also coming to Messenger. 

Ryan Stoner, strategy director, Publicis Seattle, predicted that the week-old video hub, in particular, will drive revenue on multiple fronts. 

"In-the-moment marketing and entertainment has become a hot advertising opportunity," Stoner said. "Facebook's push to own the livestream space allows it to creep into Snapchat and Periscope's territory to steal real-time user participation. It's not so much about capturing new kinds of engagement as it is preventing users from going elsewhere."

Some argue that the future of Facebook runs through its Messenger app. To marketers, though, the next phase leans on video and VR.

"Users are said to share 10 times more comments on a live video feed than on a regular one," said Sean Cullen, evp of product and technology at Fluent.

Zur of Safe Beyond added, "Virtual reality is where we are all heading."

Wherever exactly that is, there appears to be a pretty decent chance Facebook will be there with us.