Tim Kendall last year deleted the
app from his phone for reasons that are becoming increasingly common: a sense of anxiety and dissatisfaction after viewing other people’s filtered lives, frustration at the divisive political discourse and harassment from trolls.
What makes Mr. Kendall’s move more surprising is he was an early architect of Facebook Inc.’s business model, and has served as president of another popular social-media business, image-sharing company Pinterest Inc. Mr. Kendall is wealthy and a success professionally by almost any measure, but the endless scrolling through social media was producing unwanted negativity in his life.
“I felt bad about myself. I felt inadequate,” he says. “I felt like most people had better lives than I did on every dimension.”
More recently, he has spent $7 million to fund Moment, a Burlingame, Calif.-based mobile app to help people assess and in some cases reduce the time they spend on their phones. His position isn’t that social media is bad, but that users understandably struggle at times to find the right balance for it in their lives.
That message is increasingly in vogue in Silicon Valley, where social media is going through an awkward adolescence.
Deleting the app
Fifteen years after Mark Zuckerberg launched a Harvard-based social network that grew into a corporate behemoth, Americans are increasingly reassessing the role of social media in their lives. About 42% of Facebook users surveyed by Pew Research Center in May and June said they have taken a break from the social network for several weeks or more. A quarter of survey respondents said they deleted the app altogether. A more recent survey from Pew, in September, showed that among teens—the industry’s future—59% of all respondents reported being bullied online.
Silicon Valley insiders such as the Center for Humane Technology, run by former Google and Facebook employees, speak out increasingly on such issues as tech addiction and privacy. Representatives of the center have met with policy makers in Washington, D.C., and tech leaders on the West Coast, urging them to think about ethical design choices.
Those shifts have huge business implications for the tech firms, which grew at meteoric rates for the past decade and are scrambling to adjust to a new reality. Facebook,
each reported earnings last month showing either slowing or stalled user growth.
In response, they are trying measures to recapture the magic that drew many users to social media in the first place.
Percentage of adult Facebook users in the U.S. who said they had taken a break of several weeks or more from checking Facebook or deleted the Facebook app from their phones in the past year
Facebook, which for years focused obsessively on getting users to spend as much time as possible on the platform, now emphasizes boosting “time well spent” on the site. It is hiring thousands of content moderators at great expense to reduce the spread of toxic content, and adjusting its algorithms to prioritize “meaningful social interactions” between friends and family, rather than provocative content that can be polarizing.
Twitter likewise has spent the past year weeding out trolls and highlighting tweets about music or sports instead of content that goes viral just because it is inflammatory. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey says his goal is “to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation.”
The goal is to bring back—or keep—people like Mia Hansen.
The 40-year-old from Lafayette, Calif., didn’t like Facebook’s changes to the newsfeed over the years that seemed to favor posts from obscure acquaintances over close friends and family. She says she deleted the Facebook app from her phone after she became a mother and it became “too much of a hassle.”
“I aged out of Facebook,” says Ms. Hansen, though she adds that she still logs in occasionally on her desktop.
Analysts say the business threat is real and that there is no guarantee that social media will be as central to daily life in a decade as it is today. The social-media platforms “need to evolve,” says Brian Wieser, an internet analyst at Pivotal Research Group, an equity research firm based in New York City. Mr. Wieser says the platforms are at a point where they have an opportunity to address the mounting concerns and complaints of users “or it could be that human interest will change. People might prefer to go to the park to read a book.”
Those who helped build the social-media platforms say the companies are maturing in a way that is painful at times, but natural. In Twitter’s case, the company’s growth was so fast that it was difficult to map out what a “micro-blogging platform” would look like in 2018.
“There was no master plan or thinking around what the long-term implications of this would be,” says Satya Patel, who was vice president of product at Twitter from 2011 to 2012. As Twitter caught on, for example, it gave a microphone to anyone who wanted one.
“Turns out, giving everyone the ability to amplify their voice isn’t necessarily the best thing for society,” says Mr. Patel, now a partner at venture-capital firm Homebrew.
A Facebook spokeswoman says the platform has been a force for good with users organizing movements, raising money and awareness for causes and reconnecting with loved ones.
Still, social media platforms have also become powerful tools for white supremacists, terrorists and conspiracy theorists.
“Facebook was created for a better species than human beings,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.”
“Facebook removed friction for a lot of behaviors,” Prof. Vaidhyanathan says. “It removed a lot of things that slowed down communication in the world, and it turns out those barriers are important.”
Many of the changes the tech firms are putting in place this year, such as hiring moderators and blocking trolls, are designed to function as guardrails, restraining the anything-goes mentality that prevailed in the first decade-plus of social media.
Mr. Kendall, the former Facebook executive, says he regrets not foreseeing how bad actors would hitch themselves to Facebook’s quest to connect the world. “I feel a little guilty about not anticipating some of the ramifications, even though I think that would have been really hard,” he says.
His new company, Moment, whose app has been downloaded seven million times, generates revenue primarily by selling subscriptions for services like coaching to help people get the most out of social media without letting its allure have a negative impact on their lives.
Happy v. unhappy
According to a survey by Moment conducted over six months through Sept. 24 that asked about 9,000 Facebook users about their use of the service, those who said they were “happy” on Facebook spent an average of 20 minutes daily on the social network, compared with 43 minutes average daily use for those who said they were “unhappy” with their experience on Facebook. By contrast, the survey found that people reported getting more enjoyment from using apps that weren’t social media.
Mr. Kendall says he believes in the future of social media. Having worked alongside Mr. Zuckerberg for years, Mr. Kendall says he is confident the executive will put in place the right adjustments over time.
Evan Henshaw-Plath, one of the first engineers at Twitter, says the companies will never find solutions that satisfy all critics, because of the sheer range of problems confronting them. Even so, he says, they should be doing better. Mr. Henshaw-Plath, who no longer works at Twitter, is currently working on building a decentralized social network.
“Social-media companies have become incredibly important to our democracy, and we only do an OK job, but not so poorly that I think they should be fired or we should abandon them,” he says. His overall assessment: “Needs improvement.”
Ms. Koh is a Wall Street Journal reporter based in San Francisco. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.