Is this the beginning of the end of Facebook?

The signs have been out there for a while, but Facebook users have now declined for the first time ever.

Is this the beginning of the end of Facebook?

It's the beginning of the end of Facebook.

Image: Roman Martyniuk/Unsplash

Facebook is dying. The signs have been out there for a while, of course: slowing growth around the world, an increased focus on Instagram and WhatsApp and Messenger and then a hard pivot toward the metaverse, including a whole-ass name change so that Meta's potential might not be brought down by Facebook. But all we saw until now was slow growth, not decline.

Facebook users have now declined for the first time ever, Meta announced on its earnings call yesterday. The numbers are still ludicrous, obviously — 1.929 billion people still log on to the Facebook app every day, and Meta turned nearly $40 billion in profit last year, so don't pour one out for the blue app just yet — but the number is down about a half a million users from the previous three months.

  • Meta's overall product portfolio — which includes WhatsApp and Instagram — was up a hair, to 2.82 billion per day. But it's pretty clear that after nearly two decades of literally unprecedented growth, Facebook's flagship app has plateaued.
  • The largest culprit is almost certainly that there just aren't enough people in the world for Facebook to grow forever. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg is so interested in appealing to youths.

Meta's stock has dropped about 20% since the earnings call. Big price swings have come for Meta before, but this one's particularly problematic: Zuckerberg needs time, money and patience to pull off his metaverse play, and he may not have as much of any of the three as he thought.

Facebook is playing with both hands tied behind its back right now. TikTok is a formidable competitor, but Facebook can't even buy a GIF company without getting antitrust scrutiny. Apple's privacy moves continue to hurt, too: “The accuracy of our ads targeting decreased, which increased the cost of driving outcomes,” Sheryl Sandberg said on the earnings call, and Zuckerberg added that the company has had to rebuild "a lot of our ads infrastructure." Ultimately, CFO Dave Wehner said, that could cost the company about $10 billion in lost revenue — which is about as much as Meta lost on all its metaverse projects last year.

Reels is the bright spot, at least until the metaverse becomes a thing. Zuckerberg underscored how important Reels is to the company as it tries to take on TikTok, and called it "our fastest-growing content format by far."

  • That's the other shift that's becoming clear: While Meta shifts to the metaverse, its social apps are becoming entertainment apps. Adam Mosseri said as much last year, but the change is already upon us.

Meta has been the most interesting company in earnings season so far. The sun rises, Big Tech makes money. But here are a few things we've learned from the other companies reporting:

  • Google's ad business is doing just fine. Some think it's actually benefiting from Apple's privacy push, as advertisers look for a new way to reach and target people. In general, there are few companies better positioned than Alphabet — which is increasingly vertically integrated, controls multiple massive properties and holds vast quantities of first-party data — for the next few years.
  • TikTok is the future of everything. Sundar Pichai said that Shorts is growing fast, even as YouTube's momentum fell short of expectations (partly thanks to TikTok). If you're not in the vertical-video game, you're apparently nowhere.
  • Streaming services may be headed for a slowdown. Netflix's subscriber growth has slowed recently, as has Spotify's. Both may be running up against the same sort of total-addressable-market ceiling Facebook is, and they won't be the only ones.
  • Spotify led its earnings call with the Joe Rogan controversy, in case you're wondering whether Spotify's actually worried about the blowback there.
  • Supply chain problems hurt everyone, but the chip shortage continues to be good to chip companies. Qualcomm had a big quarter, as did AMD, and both predicted even better things to come. And Apple, which definitely counts as a chip company at this point, was optimistic as well.
  • Absolutely everybody is in the creator business now. You can hardly tune in to an earnings call without a CEO talking about how they're building tools for creators, helping creators monetize, giving creators new ways to make content. Why? Because creators bring audiences more reliably and cheaply than any other mechanism. If you're in the content biz, it's as simple as that.

This year, it seems, is going to be a year full of transition. The ad market continues to change; the supply chain should improve eventually; the digital transformations of so many industries continue apace; regulation is coming; the (hopefully, please, seriously) end of the pandemic will bring a sweep of change in everyone's lives. Even the biggest companies won't be immune to the change. But all that money they keep making will surely help.

A version of this story also appeared in today's Source Code newsletter; subscribe here.

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