The battle for attention, at the heart of the fight between Facebook and its competitors

“What we sell to Coca-Cola is free human brain time,” declared Patrick Le Lay, then CEO of the TF1 group, in 2004. Today, the new mass media still have the same objective: to persuade users to spend – or lose – their time on their platforms. When Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook, declares that his group faces a “increasing competition for people’s time”, it therefore exposes a serious concern.

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From the point of view of cognitive sciences, social networks are built to force our brain to take an interest in them: they push our neurons to secrete dopamine, which is likely to generate addiction, as explained by Sylvie Gendreau, in charge of courses in creativity and innovation at Polytechnique Montréal in The conversation.

Experiments on lab rats

According to an editorial writer from New York Times, the functional networks agree with the findings of the psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who proved by experimenting on laboratory rats that for the behavior of a rat, it is better to reward it on a random schedule than at regular intervals. On Facebook, you never know when your photo will be liked or commented on, which encourages you to connect regularly.

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From an economic point of view, getting the user to register and return to an obvious interest: social networks collecting data and possibly then reselling it. This gold mine is the subject of many desires, and the quasi-monopoly of Facebook on it is increasingly threatened, in particular by TikTok.

TikTok, 3 billion downloads in three years

The Chinese app is recording impressive growth. It took three years to reach 3 billion downloads, compared to ten years for Instagram, which belongs to Facebook’s parent company, Meta. Faced with this competition, Facebook recorded for the first time in its history a drop in the number of monthly users. Its results in the fourth quarter of 2021, down 8% compared to the previous year, are considered disappointing.

However, Mark Zuckerberg’s applications retain a large lead over their competitor: TikTok will have 755 million active monthly users in 2022, compared to 2.1 billion for Facebook and 1.28 billion for Instagram.

Social networks, the factory of violence

Despite this discrepancy, the rise of TikTok is worrying enough to prompt Meta to react, especially since Facebook is accused of spreading false information and even of having encouraged the dissemination of hate speech against of the Rohingya minority in Burma. The challenge is to succeed in capturing 13-24 year olds, who are very present on TikTok.

Mark Zuckerberg had already had to stem Snapchat, and had succeeded by integrating its main feature, the “stories”, on Facebook and Instagram. The technique it uses to try to counter TikTok is the same: a function called “Coils”which offers short videos based on the model of the Chinese application, has been integrated on Instagram.


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