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Users spending 50 million fewer hours a day

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SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Zuckerberg warned in January that radical changes he’s making to return Facebook to its roots of connecting friends and family would curtail how much time people spend there. 

He wasn’t kidding. Those changes that got underway last quarter are already hitting engagement numbers, reducing time spent on Facebook by 5%, as the giant social network shows people fewer viral videos.

“In total, we made changes that reduced time spent on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day,” Zuckerberg said, in announcing the social media company’s fourth-quarter results that topped Wall Street expectations.

Pressure has been building on Facebook and its CEO as the toxic content flowing through Facebook — violent live videos, fabricated news articles and divisive messages from Russian operatives that rocked the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — has been blamed for social problems. Facebook is also under fire for exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology to hook people on social media, hijacking their time and attention and undermining their well-being. 

Zuckerberg, who says his personal challenge for 2018 is to fix Facebook, says his focus is not on time spent on Facebook, but time “well spent” on Facebook.

In recent months, Facebook has admitted that passive use of Facebook — aimless scrolling through the news feed — can be bad for mental health. Facebook is altering the formula that determines what shows up in people’s news feeds to favor status updates from friends and family that spark more “meaningful social interactions.”

Meaningful social interactions are the new buzzword for Facebook executives. Going forward, Zuckerberg said Facebook would measure success by how many of those interactions are taking place on Facebook. He did not say how Facebook determines which social interactions are meaningful. 

“I expect the amount of time people spend and some measures of engagement will go down as a result” of the changes Facebook has made, he told analysts during a conference call Wednesday. “But I also expect the amount we interact with each other to go up.”

Also sounding alarm bells, Facebook experienced its first-ever decline in daily active U.S. and Canadian users to 184 million from 185 million in the prior quarter. Facebook’s chief financial officer David Wehner told analysts he did not expect the decline of 700,00 daily users in the U.S. and Canada to continue.

“We don’t anticipate that that will be a continuing trend but, given the high penetration rate, we do think there will be some fluctuation there,” Wehner said.

It’s unclear if the decline in engagement is a direct result of Facebook’s interventions. Frustration with Facebook, which seemed to peak during the U.S. presidential election, may have already been driving people away, analysts say.

In January, Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser told USA TODAY his analysis of recent Nielsen data showed use of Facebook declined in August and September. 

“Facebook is responding to a decline in consumption, not just encouraging a decline in consumption,” Wieser said at the time.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Mahaney said his most recent survey of Internet users found a slightly more negative bias towards expected time spent on Facebook.

Lexi Felder, a 33-year-old Facebook user from Atlanta, say she used to spend five hours a day on the service. Now she says she spends five minutes there, switching her allegiance to Instagram, also owned by Facebook. Felder, who works in digital marketing for entertainment websites and has a lifestyle blog, still has the Facebook app on her phone but she’s turned off notifications. And she says she’s not alone.

“I definitely see my social circle abandoning Facebook as well,” Felder said. “I talk about Facebook more than my friends do. They are completely off Facebook.”

Facebook offered more upbeat news for investors in its financial results, once again beating Wall Street expectations in the fourth quarter, with $12.97 billion in revenue, up from $8.8 billion a year ago. Analysts had expected the social media giant to report revenue of $12.55 billion.

Diluted earnings per share were $1.44, up from $1.21 a year ago. That included a one-time charge as a result of the recently introduced tax reform law that reduced earnings per share by 77 cents. Without the adjustment, Facebook would have earned $2.21, exceeding consensus of $1.94.

“While concerns around user engagement and potential adverse impacts of social media remain elevated, monetization trends suggest marketer demand remains robust,” Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Colin Sebastian wrote in a research note.

In January, Facebook’s CEO announced sweeping changes to the formula that determines what shows up in people’s News Feeds. The changes would result in Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users spending less time on and less time engaged with the social network, he said. “I believe that will be good for our community and our business over the long term, too,” he said at the time.

Daniel Ives, chief strategy officer and head of technology research at GBH Insights, agrees.

“The News Feed overhaul and any near-term engagement issues on the platform is ultimately the ‘right medicine at the right time’ as we believe this strategy will drive higher advertising pricing/monetization trends in the long-term for Facebook and was a move Zuckerberg & Co. needed to make,” Ives wrote in a research note.

 

 

 

 

 

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