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Facebook loses users globally for the first time in its history

Facebook parent Meta's quarterly earnings report revealed a startling statistic: For the first time ever, the company's growth is stagnating around the world..REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Facebook parent Meta's quarterly earnings report revealed a startling statistic: For the first time ever, the company's growth is stagnating around the world..REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Published Feb 3, 2022

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Facebook parent Meta's quarterly earnings report 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 and Latin America, 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 plummeted more than 20% in after-hours trading following the news, dropping to about $249 per share and threatening to wipe about $200 billion off its market value. 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."

That could also drop its ranking among the most valuable companies in the world.

Its newest ambition is off to a slow start, at least by one key metric. Facebook showed for the first time on Wednesday what a tiny fraction of revenue is earned from its investment in virtual and augmented reality hardware - the suite of products the company dubs the metaverse.

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Facebook Reality Labs, the company's hardware division that builds the Oculus Quest headset, earned $877 million, reflecting stronger-than-expected sales during the holiday season.

But that figure is a tiny fraction of its revenue - $33.67 billion last quarter - a figure that is primarily derived from targeted advertising on its main social network. And the hardware division lost $3.3 billion during the quarter.

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," said CEO Mark Zuckerberg 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 the company's political problems. Tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents brought forth by a whistleblower last year revealed that 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Europe for the last 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 potentially worrisome trend and one that demonstrates another reason the company is pushing so forcefully into new arenas such as hardware.

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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 of users 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. The company changed its corporate name from Facebook to Meta in October, saying at the time that it wanted to reflect its focus on the metaverse.

Zuckerberg spoke several times on the earnings call about the competitive threat the company faces from video platform TikTok, and 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.

WASHINGTON POST

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