Sunday marked the one year anniversary since the Cambridge Analytica data scandal broke in The New York Times and The Observer, and Facebook has been on one hell of a free fall since then. In retrospect, that day in March 2018 might go down as a turning point in our relationship with social media, and spell an irreversable shift in how we perceive tech companies in general.
Facebook has been an easy target in tech circles for a while now. They snap up any competitor before they can become a threat to their dominance. They blatantly copy other app functionalities and then claim to have “invented” them during their hackathons. Anyone who knows anything about Mark Zuckerberg knows that his bro-culture goes all the way back to the beginning.
It’s been rather easy for Facebook to shrug all of that off. Zuck’s a billionaire visionary who commands our attention and advertisers’ wallets – he’s going to have some haters. Lots of mega companies acquire-to-stiffle. Copying winning recipes is the bread and butter of innovation. The US did it in the 1800’s by stealing textile mill designs from England. China is doing it to Apple now. Oftentimes innovation is just copying better for cheaper. But that’s an argument for business schools.
Since March 2018 though, all of this has changed.
Facebook has been slammed from all directions by scandals about how they use customer data, who they sell it to, how they hire PR firms to cover up what they do, and how they create back doors into app ecosystems like Apple to be able to spy on how their users use other apps. Russians successfully hijacked an American presidential election using Facebook’s ad platform. Misinformation abounds. Facebook has so far been unable to show any ability to get it under control.
Then there is the human toll. A devastating article in The Verge revealed how Facebook’s content moderators live through unbelievable mental torture to make sure that videos of murder, beastiality, and hate crimes don’t make it onto the platform. The company that provides the service, Cognizant, might just be one of the worst places to work in the world – but Facebook deems it necessary to make sure that they don’t have to put any actual filters in place between people and posting.
And when stuff gets through, well, look at the terrorist who attacked two mosques in New Zealand. He had no trouble live streaming a terrorist attack after posting about it beforehand on Facebook. Despite the horrendous human toll of humans moderating content, it is just not a system that can work.
A general feeling has started crystalizing: if Facebook is incapable (or unwilling) to control the experience so that things like this don’t happen, has Facebook gotten too big?
That’s the feeling of presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz who, despite hating each other viscerally and disagreeing on everything else, think that Facebook has gotten too big and should be broken up, railroad style.
Many business experts, like Scott Galloway, have been calling for the review of the size of tech companies and their practice of stiffling of competiton for years now. But for high profile people who will command a large portion of the public’s attention to be talking about anti-trust marks a turning point.
Then there are the state attorneys general who are launching criminal investigations into the way that Facebook handled personal information of its users. The FTC is weighing a heavy fine to make an example out of Facebook misleading its users.
Facebook’s approach of connecting the world is unprecedented, and society as a whole is finally catching up to the fact that if the world is going to be connected, we should all have a say in it. This builds upon the point brought forth by Yuval Noah Harari in his book 21 Solutions for the 21st Century when he asks: did you ever vote on the Internet?
Global decisions are being made in Silicon Valley boardrooms by people who are beholden to shareholders – not citizens. Those decisions are not who to hire and fire, but equate to supranational legislation, determining how people communicate with each other and who decides what gets seen and not seen.
In capitalism, government reacts to business, not the other way around. Look at the 20+ years it took to update the privacy laws in the EU to create the GDPR. Now that Facebook has more users in the developing world than in the developed world, who are they beholden to? Clearly they fall under US law, but in a cloud-based world, the US jurisdiction is no longer clear. And in a Trump-based world, the US is no longer a trustworthy moral authority.
Get ahead of the storm
If these scandals are a storm cloud on the horizon, then Facebook is trying to dig out its basement as fast as possible. Facebook recently announced that they would be merging their messaging services (Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram messages) into one interface. They claim that this will improve user experience and focus on privacy. They promise that messages will be encrypted and not even Facebook will be able to see them.
As a response to privacy concerns, they may win back a few people who have ditched Facebook because of worries about their careless attitude towards user data. But if you take two minutes to look a little deeper, what you see is not a change in direction towards a more open, accountable Facebook. What you see is Facebook preparing to weather the coming barrage as best as it can.
Why is that? Two reasons.
First, Facebook’s user experience has been on the decline for years. What used to be a cool place to see what your friends were up to has come to reflect society as a whole, full of shitty cat videos, other viral crap, and people generically thanking their communities for wishing them a happy birthday without taking the time to thank each person individually. There is little reason to check your Facebook feed (except to find one of my new articles). You want to see things relevant to your profession? Go to Linkedin. Women in bikinis? Instagram. Memes about science? Reddit or Imgur. All the while people are posting more and more shocking content because it’s more and more difficult to get a reaction. Then there are all the assholes posting beastiality, murders, and child torture. Facebook can change its focus away from the feed towards messaging but its an implicit acceptance of failure that they cannot control the feed. Stories about Cognizant and psychological damange to people getting paid $28K per year to cry themselves to sleep after watching actual murderes and child pornography when the average Facebooker makes $250K per year in salary and stock will scootering around their spacious office in sunny California and not having to watch even a single gang rape do much more damage to Facebook than issues with their terms and conditions or a pesky fine from the FTC.
The argument about encryption is, on the surface, supposed to be about privacy, but what Facebook is really doing is removing their own responsibility for the content on their platform. When the feed is public, they have to respect certain laws. When everything is encrypted messaging, Facebook can put its hands up in the air and say that they do not have – and can not have – any control over what people post.
The second reason is that by integrating the services together they will no longer be stand alone. If they are not stand alone, they cannot be separated as easily and thus will be harder for government to break up if Warren and Cruz can muster enough public support. It’s easy to say “spin off Instagram now!” in March 2019, but when the ecosystems are completely enmeshed and Facebook has reworked the branding, the intricacies of breaking up the group will be much less apparent to the public, and thus much more difficult to promote.
Facebook has always sugar-coated their mission so that it’s the most fun, positive thing that ever happened to the world. They make little videos to help you celebrate Friendversaries and give you a sugar-coated recap of every year since you joined.
But every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The intentions might be good, but the motives are not driven by creating a better world. Facebook is about making money, and they are really good at it. Every action is about getting you to spend more time on each of their services. Their marketing teams have proven deft at spinning one hell of a yarn, but that is starting to crumble.
What’s certain is that Facebook usage is sinking fast in the developed world. Look at this:
Instagram is growing fast though so the balance of power is not fundamentally changing. If Instagram can retain its credibility as the “authentic” platform that respects user data, and Facebook can seamlessly integrate its other functionalities like Messenger behind it, it can perhaps shed off the tainted part of their brands while hiding it under the shiny parts. It would certainly be one of the biggest business transitions in the history of capitalism.