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Facebook loses users for the first time in its history

Facebook parent Meta’s stock suffered its biggest single-day loss yet as the company refocuses on the ‘metaverse’

A sign in posted in front of Meta headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Facebook parent Meta’s quarterly earnings report on Wednesday revealed a startling statistic: For the first time ever, the company’s growth is stagnating around the world.

Facebook lost daily users for the first time in its 18-year history — falling by about half a million users in the last three months of 2021, to 1.93 billion logging in each day. The loss was greatest in Africa, Latin America and India, suggesting that the company’s product is saturated globally — and that its long quest to add as many users as possible has peaked.

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Meta’s stock price had plummeted more than 26 percent by Thursday afternoon, shaving $220 billion off its market value and costing the company the biggest one-day loss in its 18-year history. The company is facing challenges on multiple fronts, as competitor TikTok booms, federal and international regulators scrutinize its business practices, and it begins a lofty transition to focus on the “metaverse.”

Meta’s stock price tumbled more than 20 percent on Feb. 2, after the company confirmed that Facebook’s global user growth has stagnated for the first time. (Video: Reuters)

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It adds up to a dizzying blow for a company that has long been defined by its relentless obsession with growth. The social network’s meteoric rise from a Harvard dorm room in 2004 to 1 billion monthly active users in 2012 — and then 2 billion just five years later — was fueled by a mission to connect the world, including efforts to bring more people online in developing countries so it could sign them up, too.

Its newest ambition is off to a slow start, at least by one key metric. Facebook showed for the first time on Wednesday how much of a money-losing proposition its investment in virtual- and augmented-reality hardware is — the suite of products the company dubs the metaverse. It spent more than $10 billion on building its hardware division, Facebook Reality Labs (FRL), in 2021.

Investors on Thursday appeared to punish the company for a combination of factors, including the slower growth numbers, a lower revenue forecast for the coming months, failure to generate advertising revenue from Reels, its short-video TikTok copycat on Instagram, as well as costs related to changes to Apple’s operating system that prevent ad-tracking, which hurts companies like Facebook.

FRL, the company’s hardware division that builds the Oculus Quest headset, lost $3.3 billion in the quarter, despite bringing in $877 million in revenue.

But even that figure is a tiny fraction of Facebook’s total revenue — $33.67 billion last quarter — primarily derived from targeted advertising on its main social network.

The company has made significant investments toward its aspiration of becoming a hardware giant, including hiring over 10,000 people and rebranding itself to Meta. But that transition is still in its early days.

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“Last year was about putting a stake in the ground for where we are heading; this year is going to be about executing,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on the company’s earnings call.

Executives hope that the company can reinvent itself with a focus on hardware, and that doing so will distract from its political problems. Tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents brought forth by a whistleblower last year revealed that it is accelerating societal polarization and that its algorithms have amplified misinformation and helped violent groups organize on the platform. The company is under intense government scrutiny, facing a major antitrust case in the United States and expected laws in Europe that could transform its business. It recently shuttered its cryptocurrency project, Diem, in response to intractable political pushback.

Facebook’s user growth has stalled in the United States and Europe for the past several years, but the company previously made up for it by consistently adding users all over the world. These new numbers, which show a dip in daily active users on the Facebook app, suggest that Facebook is becoming saturated globally, as well — a trend that demonstrates another reason the company is pushing so forcefully into new arenas such as hardware.

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The company also said that data plan pricing increases in India last year also caused slower than expected growth.

But not all growth trends were negative. The company’s family of apps, which encompass Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger continued to modestly add users. The number logging in monthly to Facebook continued to grow, even as the number of daily users dropped. And the company continued to earn slightly more revenue per user, as well.

The company also said it was changing its stock ticker symbol to META from FB. It changed its corporate name from Facebook to Meta in October, saying at the time that it wanted to reflect its focus on the metaverse. But the change also came amid regulatory scrutiny of the company’s size and power, which was heightened after whistleblower Frances Haugen turned over internal company documents to Congress and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Zuckerberg spoke several times on the earnings call about the competitive threat the company faces from video platform TikTok, and he explained that this competition was the reason the company was pushing hard to develop its short-form video product, Reels.

Zuckerberg conceded on a call with investors that the company faces growing competition in the race to capture people’s attention online and would need to work to make sure Reels brought in more money.

“People have a lot of choices for how they want to spend their time, and apps like TikTok are growing very quickly,” he said. “And this is why our focus on Reels is so important over the long term.”

But the CEO’s unusually frequent references to competition also could be read as a message to critics who say the company is an all-powerful monopoly.

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