Facebook has gone back to college. Last week, the tech giant launched a product offering students a closed, online community to meet fellow students. It’s called, appropriately enough, Facebook Campus

The “new” product induces a considerable dose of déjà vu. College campuses were, of course, where Facebook all began. Mark Zuckerberg started his grand experiment at Harvard with “Facemash” (a close cousin to Hot or Not), morphed that into a more innocuous but short-lived online study community (to cram for art history exams), and eventually built “The Facebook” (a spin-off of the university’s paper-based student directories distributed each year). 

A mere 17 years later, the move back to campus raises questions about Facebook’s relationship to younger demographics and the networks they both want and need. Access to new relationships—with friends, faculty, alumni, and mentors—is, in fact, what the majority of students value most about college. According to its press release, Facebook is ostensibly aiming to recoup some of that value amidst campus closures, offering a place for “making new friends, finding people who share similar interests and discovering new opportunities to connect—from clubs to study groups, sports, and more.” 

But beyond trying to offer some semblance of normalcy to disgruntled college students trapped at home, the new product signals bigger questions—and possible opportunities—for Facebook. Might the Campus app usher in a new sort of networking Facebook has failed to generate in its core business over the past two decades?

Unlikely as it may seem, Campus could be Zuckerberg’s chance to start fresh. It’s a unique opportunity for the founder to rethink the very initial approach his company took from the ground up and reconsider the cascade of technology, design, and policy decisions that brought Facebook to the various predicaments it’s in today. In particular, it’s a chance to think about building a product that fosters new, diverse, and positive connections with people students might otherwise not meet.

2004 called, it wants its algorithm back

Facebook’s effort to keep students connected during the pandemic conveniently coincides with the company’s struggle to get younger people back onto the social network. But whether Campus attracts Gen Z to Facebook says little about whether it can actually meet college students’ social needs both in the short and long term. Based on our research on the crucial role that students’ networks play in access to opportunity, the more interesting question is whether Facebook could build a product that helps ensure students have the right relationships and connections, at the right time, to succeed in college and beyond.

Forging those connections would entail a particular type of social network of diverse peers, mentors, and professionals, beyond Facebook’s current capabilities. A tight-knit, closed community was core to the original Facebook. Zuckerberg’s initial platform was gated, by design. You could only join with a verified email address from an elite institution. The point, in other words, was to create a small digital world where only those on the “inside” could interact. 

Even as it opened up access to the site and grew worldwide, maintaining connections that already exist arguably remained its core business. According to Pew Research Center, the average Facebook user knows 93% of his Facebook “Friends” in real life. Rather than trying something new this time around, Campus appears to largely mirror the platform’s original premise: connecting peers who are attending the same institution, particularly across shared interests. 

That’s hardly surprising. But it’s a clear missed opportunity for Facebook to try a different tack. In the past, Zuckerberg has expressed some ambivalence when it comes to his platform’s tendency to favor connecting existing networks over brokering new ones. In a May 2017 post, as something of a postcard from his cross-country road trip to meet new people, he considered the alternative: “Facebook has been focused on helping you connect with people you already know. We’ve built AI systems to recommend ‘People You May Know’. But it might be just as important to also connect you with people you should know—mentors and people outside your circle who care about you and can provide a new source of support and inspiration.”

Can Facebook escape its past?

Although Zuckerberg was drawn to the “people you should know” concept, there’s little to suggest that Facebook has taken a turn in that direction (with the exception of Facebook Dating, which interestingly enough appears to have the same product manager as Campus). 

But Zuckerberg’s 2017 reckoning—that care and inspiration may come from outside of, not just within, an existing community—is particularly pertinent when it comes to shoring up college students’ networks of support and opportunity amidst a year of social distancing. Relationships with not just peers, but also recent graduates, faculty, and alumni professionals are all proven ingredients to persisting through college and accessing high-quality jobs, an estimated half of which come through personal connections, after graduation. That’s especially true for students who may not arrive at college with existing connections or may not have inherited networks that can open doors into the job market. As Harvard sociologist Tony Jack has written, “It’s one thing to graduate with a degree from an elite institution, and another thing to graduate with the social capital to activate that degree.”

Campus could be a fresh start for Zuckerberg to experiment with new algorithms aimed at furnishing college students with a range of supportive, inspiring, career-expanding connections. Will it? Probably not. History appears to be repeating itself. 

Optimizing for a totally new algorithm is unlikely to fit into Facebook’s business model. Its “People You May Know” algorithm, which has been subject to its fair share of criticism and investigation over the years, drives scale. Recommendations prompt friending, which boosts engagement, which, in turn, drives revenue. And although (as of now) ads won’t appear on Campus proper, according to the privacy policy, data on users’ interests generated through the app will feed back into advertising on their normal Facebook feed.

The tendency to get locked into a particular profit formula (and the algorithms behind it) is not unique to Facebook. For most successful businesses, new innovations rarely thrive in the context of the traditional business model, unless they drive profits in the same manner. Faced with this innovator’s dilemma, managers rationally opt for more of the same. Even when leaders like Zuckerberg espouse a philosophical commitment to trying new approaches, old, entrenched processes and products tend to cannibalize new ones. 

Or in this case, a new product appears eerily similar to the old one. And there’s little reason to believe it won’t reproduce the same results. 

A new breed of edtech that connects

Even if the Goliath of social media tools doesn’t manage to forge new networks for students in the year ahead, other companies are making headway. An emerging group of edtech entrepreneurs is busy innovating to create a new breed of social networking tools that could actually help young people forge more meaningful, diverse relationships. In contrast to Facebook’s focus on existing communities, many of these companies were explicitly built to connect students to new friends, support staff, faculty, and alums both on- and off-campus. Rather than a social network to rule them all, each tends to focus on particular types of relationships and try to get them right. Tools like Mentor Collective, PeopleGrove, Knack, and Riipen (to name just a few) offer everything from on-demand supports from mentors to peer-to-peer learning and tutoring, to better networked experiential learning in the classroom.

These edtech tools are also designed to produce different and better results for students by addressing acute challenges students face or by aggregating connections and experiences students need to succeed after college. Like Facebook, student engagement is still the name of the game. But for most of these products, engagement isn’t just a numbers game, so much as a matter of precision and quality. In some cases, the connections forged may be fewer, but ultimately more useful for the particular needs students have; be those picking a major, studying for an exam, or figuring out their plans after graduation.

It’s unlikely that Facebook takes a page from this still-emerging market and starts to measure Campus’s impact along dimensions beyond friends and clicks. If it went that direction, it could likely outcompete some of these products on sheer marketing and development dollars alone. But that would require patient capital and a whole lot of autonomy from existing business practices and well-established algorithms. And a willingness to question the underlying principles that once made Facebook successful in the first place.

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