A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Facebook has been connecting people to their classmates, friends and family for almost 20 years. Now, as NPR's Shannon Bond reports, the social network is racing to keep up with TikTok, the popular upstart redefining social media. And a quick note - Facebook's parent, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Software engineer Michael Sayman has been making apps since he was 13. At just 25, he's already worked at Facebook, Google and Twitter on efforts to win over teenagers. And he says these days, one company is setting the curve.
MICHAEL SAYMAN: Everyone's eyes are glued to TikTok and the way it works right now.
BOND: The Chinese-owned short video app has surged to 1 billion users in just a few short years, minting dance trends, absurd challenges and mega viral music hits, like Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")
LIL NAS X: (Singing) I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm going to ride...
BOND: Now, Facebook is still by far the world's biggest social network, with almost 3 billion people logging on every month and even more when you add in Instagram, also owned by Facebook parent Meta. But under pressure from TikTok's success, the company is remaking itself, no longer the network defined primarily by the friends and family you choose to connect with.
SAYMAN: Social media is taking a shift away from sharing what you're up to with your friends to, like, you know, posting to everyone in the world.
BOND: It's a radical rethinking. But Facebook lost users for the first time late last year. Its audience is aging. Younger people who used to flock to Instagram are now on TikTok. The company plans to give its latest financial report on Wednesday, showing just how much competition is squeezing its ad business. CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the threat on a call with investors in February.
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MARK ZUCKERBERG: People have a lot of choices for how they want to spend their time. And apps like TikTok are growing very quickly.
BOND: So Facebook introduced TikTok-like short videos called Reels. Open up Instagram or Facebook these days, and it's hard to miss. Feeds are full of Reels, many of which are actually videos reposted from TikTok. Now the company is going even further, overhauling the Facebook app to look and work more like TikTok. Matt Navarra is a social media consultant and analyst.
MATT NAVARRA: Facebook is really - was always centered around being your close friends, your close family and what they're doing and all of their updates.
BOND: Over time, that expanded to joining groups and following pages for brands and celebrities. But the common factor was always posts from people you chose to follow. Then came TikTok.
NAVARRA: With TikTok, it's kind of turned on its head. It's not really important about who that person is, where they are and your connection to them.
BOND: Its main For You page shows whatever TikTok's algorithm thinks you might like, no matter who made it. Facebook is starting to do the same thing, mixing in more recommended videos from strangers. Software engineer Sayman says the company has little choice.
SAYMAN: The moment that TikTok comes along and it's like, oh, who cares who you follow? Like, let's just make a For You feed of just stuff you might be interested in - just one massive talent show. Facebook's like, well, we need to get in that space, too, right? We can't - you know, we've got to get in there.
BOND: Similar changes to Instagram are already sparking backlash. This week, Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner both reposted a meme demanding, make Instagram Instagram again, stop trying to be TikTok. Facebook says posts from friends and family are still going to be prominently featured in its apps. Instagram head Adam Mosseri says the company isn't getting rid of what people love.
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ADAM MOSSERI: But we're also going to need to evolve because the world is changing quickly, and we're going to have to change along with it.
BOND: CEO Zuckerberg has been clear about his goal - squeezing as much money as he can from his company's existing apps so it can build what he sees as the next big platform, the metaverse, where he hopes people will interact in virtual reality. And making money means getting more people to spend more time on Facebook and Instagram so they can sell more ads. But will it work? Navarra is skeptical.
NAVARRA: TikTok's got one fundamental thing that Facebook doesn't have, and that is that TikTok's cool.
BOND: And he says it's hard to copy cool.
Shannon Bond, NPR News.
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