In early 2019, Christ Hughes, Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate and the co-founder of Facebook, called for Facebook to be broken up, claiming that it’s become a “powerful monopoly.”
And Hughes isn’t the only ex-Facebooker that’s troubled by the company. Founding President Sean Parker, of Napster fame and who was also played by Justin Timberlake in the movie, is deeply concerned about what the social network is doing to kids’ brains. Then there’s the former VP of user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, who criticized Facebook publicly by stating:
“In the back, deep, deep recess of our mind, we kind of knew something bad could happen.”
But the problem here is straightforward: Facebook has a bad effect on society, and Zuckerberg wields too much power. But is it the arrogance and the social unskills we saw in Fincher’s movie The Social Network that’s causing Zuckerberg to act this way?
Maybe, but not really. The real problem here is Zuckerberg’s desire for growth for himself and his investors, and they are fueled solely by the need to get more money.
How Facebook makes its money
According to Facebook’s 2018 full year results, the company made $55.8 billion. About 98.5% of that – a cool $55 billion – came from advertising alone, with most of that advertising revenue coming from mobile advertising (93%).
Looking at their revenues from 2007-2018, we can see that they’ve been growing at a steady rate since the social network’s inception – and that for their investors, they’ll need to keep on growing:
The point here is simple: Facebook’s entire business structure depends on advertising revenue, and in order to improve those numbers, it will need to sell more ads to more people. And for that, Facebook needs better targeting, which will require more data.
And therein lies the rub – and all the data scandals.
Bigger than what I discussed previously about the worst takeaways from the 2018 British email dump is Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problem, and its part in Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have a pretty good idea of what dirty things Facebook was involved in. But here’s something that you won’t hear people saying too much:
Cambridge Analytica didn’t do anything wrong.
They were unethical, sure, but about as unethical as corporations are when it comes to advertisements: get the viewers to buy their product, or to not buy someone else’s product, or some other similar goal.
What Cambridge Analytica did is to play within the rules set forth by Facebook itself. After all, a 2012 patent filed by Facebook sought to determine people’s characteristics by how they interact on social media. These “stored personality characteristics” would then be used by advertisers to get users to “positively [interact] with a selected advertisement.”
That’s pretty much what Cambridge Analytica did, and it’s a system Facebook designed years before Cambridge Analytica did it.
So, in essence, we now have an imbalance of consequences:
- Cambridge Analytica shut down its operations in 2018 in the midst of the election scandal, and it’s still under investigation by both the US and UK governments.
- On the other hand, Facebook’s 2019 third-quarter results are 28% better than their 2018 Q3 results ($17.4 billion vs. $13.5 billion), with consistent yearly growth regardless of any scandals.
The problem was never Cambridge Analytica. It was always Facebook.
And based on the lack of significance of the scandal for the social network, based on their increasing revenues, based on their unwillingness to stop political lies in their advertisements – almost as if they learned nothing from their scandals, based on this exchange alone:
We need to end Facebook, and we need to end Facebook soon.
3 ways to end Facebook today
Facebook is a symbol – and because of its size, the apex – of the very worst of Silicon Valley culture. It’s a megacorporation led by a sheltered man-child ostensibly stuck in god mode, with no one around to shake him from his delusion – a delusion concentrated on a singular lie: that he is helping people, and that people need Facebook.
As far as I see it, there are three ways to end Facebook for good.
1. Government regulation
So far, governments have handed out fines to Facebook. And then Facebook simply pays those fines (even the $5 billion one), because it’s a very big company with a lot of money.
However, governments around the world will have to be bold and regulate Facebook so that it chokes its advertising revenue. Proposals such as the Honest Ads Act, which would place the same requirements for online advertisements as there are for radio, TV, and print, would help in that regard.
They can also go larger, with strict requirements for what corporations can do with people’s data. It is heading that way, it seems, with Europe’s GDPR and California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
It’s important to note that, here, I’m talking about an “end” to Facebook in the way that it operates currently, not that the site would be shut down in its entirety. If Facebook ever came to a point where it respected people’s data, where it was transparent in its advertisements and acted ethically in its daily operations, then that is a Facebook we can all happily live with.
But I believe that’s not going to happen any time soon, at least not via any government organization.
2. People stop using Facebook
People have enormous power when they work together for a common cause. We’ve seen that time and again in various civil rights fights and humanitarian causes that have literally changed the world.
We can use that same power for this current situation. There are two ways we can collectively “end” Facebook:
- Delete our Facebook accounts. This way, if done en masse, Facebook will have a serious drop in daily active users (one of Silicon Valley’s precious metrics) and lose considerable revenue. It wouldn’t even require a billion-strong force: it can be hundreds of thousands of people over a short period of time, which would spread to other users through the network effect, turning a ripple into a tsunami. But, let’s be honest here: this isn’t likely to happen. Even after all these scandals and data breaches, I still haven’t deleted my Facebook account, and I imagine it’s the same for millions around the world.
- Minimize the data we’re sharing. This is the long game, but the idea is that over time, Facebook’s greed engine will have less fuel to grow. If we cut off the crucial data that the company needs to have continual year-over-year growth, its advertising revenue can drop since its ad performance will suffer. Limiting the data you share on Facebook is pretty straightforward (you can find some good tips here) and it can certainly help. But again, this is a long, slow game.
3. A competing business takes over
Lastly, we have capitalism. Essentially, we can boil this down to a new site that captures Facebook’s market share and relegates it to some dinosaur site full of old people yelling at each other.
After all, when Facebook came around in the mid-2000’s, it was a minuscule site compared to Myspace. According to Zuckerberg, at that time in 2006 there were only “10 million people using Facebook, and Myspace had 100 million people, and it was growing faster.”
And where’s Myspace now?
More and more, I like Senator Elizabeth Warren’s idea to break up big tech companies like Facebook, essentially removing WhatsApp and Instagram, in order to stop its massive growth, give space for healthy competition, and in the process limit its data collection.
Ending Facebook, the right way
It’s the natural process of evolution that old things die and new things replace them. Corporations create complex strategies to ensure they don’t die, primarily by being innovative. And if that fails, they then ensure they don’t die by being unethical and doing whatever they can to stay on top of the market.
That second scenario is where Zuckerberg’s experiment finds itself now. Facebook stopped being innovative a long time ago, and it stopped being useful to our everyday lives even longer before that.
While I would like to believe that we the people can rise up against a megacorporation, and since I’m fairly certain that government regulation alone won’t stop this behemoth, it’s more important than ever that we curtail Facebook’s growth and stop its unethical practices, via regulation and our own data-limiting initiatives, so that healthy competitors can find space to grow.
Until then, we’ll be exactly where we are now: stuck using a platform that was supposed to bring college kids together, but is instead tearing society, and the very world, wide apart.