Years ago, long before Mark Zuckerberg became Mark Zuckerberg, the young founder reached out to a friend of mine who had also started a company, albeit a considerably smaller one, in the social-media space, and suggested they get together. As Facebook has grown into a global colossus that connects about a third of the globe, Zuckerberg has subsequently assumed a reputation as an aloof megalomaniac deeply out of touch with the people who use his product. But back then, when he only had 100 million users on his platform, he wasn’t perceived that way. When he reached out to my friend, Zuckerberg was solicitous. He made overtures that suggested a possible acquisition—and once rebuffed, returned with the notion that perhaps Facebook could at least partner with my friend’s company. The chief of the little start-up was excited by the seemingly harmless, even humble, proposition from the growing hegemon. Zuckerberg suggested that the two guys take a walk.
Taking a walk, it should be noted, was Zuckerberg’s thing. He regularly took potential recruits and acquisition targets on long walks in the nearby woods to try to convince them to join his company. After the walk with my friend, Zuckerberg appeared to take the relationship to the next level. He initiated a series of conference calls with his underlings in Facebook’s product group. My friend’s small start-up shared their product road map with Facebook’s business-development team. It all seemed very collegial, and really exciting. And then, after some weeks passed, the C.E.O. of the little start-up saw the news break that Facebook had just launched a new product that competed with his own.
Stories about Facebook’s ruthlessness are legend in Silicon Valley, New York, and Hollywood. The company has behaved as bullies often do when they are vying for global dominance—slurping the lifeblood out of its competitors (as it did most recently with Snap, after C.E.O. Evan Spiegel also rebuffed Zuckerberg’s acquisition attempt), blatantly copying key features (as it did with Snapchat’s Stories), taking ideas (remember those Winklevoss twins?), and poaching senior executives (Facebook is crawling with former Twitter, Google, and Apple personnel). Zuckerberg may look aloof, but there are stories of him giving rousing Braveheart-esque speeches to employees, sometimes in Latin. Twitter, Snap, and Foursquare have all been marooned, at various points, because of Facebook’s implacable desire to grow. Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus VR, and dozens of others are breathing life because they assented to Facebook’s acquisition desires. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg moved quickly to circumnavigate regulations before governments realized the problems that Facebook created—and certainly before they understood exactly how dangerous a social network can be to their citizens’ privacy, and to a democracy as a whole.
From a business standpoint, Facebook’s barbarism seemed to work out well for the company. The social network is worth over half-a-trillion dollars, and Zuckerberg himself is worth some $76 billion. Facebook has some of the smartest engineers and executives in the entire industry. But the fallout from that success has also become increasingly obvious, especially since the 2016 election, which prompted a year of public relations battles over the company’s most fundamental problems. And now, as we enter 2018, Zuckerberg is finally owning up to it: Facebook is in real trouble.
During the past six months alone, countless executives who once worked for the company are publicly articulating the perils of social media on both their families and democracy. Chamath Palihapitiya, an early executive, said social networks “are destroying how society works”; Sean Parker, its founding president, said “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” (Just this weekend, Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said he won’t let his nephew on social media.) Over the past year, people I have spoken to internally at the company have voiced concerns for what Facebook is doing (or most recently, has done) to society. Many begin the conversation by rattling off a long list of great things that Facebook inarguably does for the world—bring people and communities together, help people organize around like-minded positive events—but, as if in slow motion, those same people recount the negatives. Unable to hide from the reality of what social media has wrought, Facebook has been left with no choice but to engage with people and the media to explore if it is possible to fix these problems. Zuckerberg determined that his 2018 annual challenge would be fixing his own Web site, noting that “the world feels anxious and divided,” and that Facebook might—just maybe—be contributing to that. “My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues,” he wrote. Now, the company has said it’s going to change the focus of the site to be less about news and more about human connections.
The question, of course, revolves around this underlying motivation. Is Zuckerberg saying this because he really does worry what the world might look like tomorrow if we continue headed in the direction we’re going? Is Facebook eliminating news from its site because it realizes that spotting “fake news” is too difficult to solve—even for Facebook? Or, as some people have posited to me, is Facebook rethinking the divide it has created in order to keep growing? After all, much of Zuckerberg’s remaining growth opportunity centers upon China, and the People’s Republic won’t let any product (digital or otherwise) enter its borders if there’s a chance it could disrupt the government’s control. Why would the Chinese Politburo open its doors to a force that could conspire in its own Trumpification or Brexit or similar populist unrest?
There’s another theory floating around as to why Facebook cares so much about the way it’s impacting the world, and it’s one that I happen to agree with. When Zuckerberg looks into his big-data crystal ball, he can see a troublesome trend occurring. A few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single person I knew who didn’t have Facebook on their smartphone. These days, it’s the opposite. This is largely anecdotal, but almost everyone I know has deleted at least one social app from their devices. And Facebook is almost always the first to go. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sneaky privacy-piercing applications are being removed by people who simply feel icky about what these platforms are doing to them, and to society.
Some people are terrified that these services are listening in to their private conversations. (The company’s anti-privacy tentacles go so far as to track the dust on your phone to see who you might be spending time with.) Others are sick of getting into an argument with a long-lost cousin, or that guy from high school who still works in the same coffee shop, over something that Trump said, or a “news” article that is full of more bias and false facts. And then there’s the main reason I think people are abandoning these platforms: Facebook knows us better than we know ourselves, with its algorithms that can predict if we’re going to cheat on our spouse, start looking for a new job, or buy a new water bottle on Amazon in a few weeks. It knows how to send us the exact right number of pop-ups to get our endorphins going, or not show us how many Likes we really have to set off our insecurities. As a society, we feel like we’re at war with a computer algorithm, and the only winning move is not to play.
There was a time when Facebook made us feel good about using the service—I used to love it. It was fun to connect with old friends, share pictures of your vacation with everyone, or show off a video of your nephew being extra-specially cute. But, over time, Facebook has had to make Wall Street happy, and the only way to feed that beast is to accumulate more, more, more: more clicks, more time spent on the site, more Likes, more people, more connections, more hyper-personalized ads. All of which adds up to more money. But as one recent mea culpa by an early Internet guru aptly noted, “What if we were never meant to be a global species?”
If Facebook doesn’t solve these problems, and I’m not sure If it actually can, the outcomes could be devastating for the company. As Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and former senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission, told me recently, Facebook is in real potential trouble of running into regulatory hazards, either at home or abroad. Whether it’s over hate speech or privacy protections, governments all around the world are exploring how to stop social sites, specifically Facebook, from enabling more harm to spread through society. Wu predicts that if the U.S. government turns its sights on Facebook, it could quiet easily break it up, where Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Facebook are run by four different people. Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at N.Y.U. Stern School of Business, echoed this sentiment in a separate interview with me last year, where he predicted that out of the five big tech companies (Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook), Facebook is the most at risk of seeing a legal hammer come crashing down on its platform. “This is serious. Either it’s this government, or the European government, but this is going to get real,” Galloway told me.
It’s impossible to predict where Facebook and other social sites will be in five years. Will they be largely extinct? Will they be more akin to Netflix, or like TV channels we can group-comment on? Will they have fixed their problems and be thriving? Just a couple years ago, most people believed Twitter was dead on arrival, and then Donald Trump came along and made it his 24-hour mouthpiece. Facebook could go in this direction, saved by its foray into scripted content, or the mass adoption of virtual reality. Or, it could be split up into half-a-dozen pieces.
But one thing is certain. For years, Zuckerberg and Facebook have tromped through the technology landscape and demolished everything that stood in the way. This was done without any reprisal, without any consequence. In fact, each time the company destroyed a competitor, or found a way around traditional regulatory concerns, the valuation of Facebook would go up. But now, it seems that all of those actions are coming back to haunt the company, and social media as a whole. Facebook was always famous for the sign that hung in its offices, written in big red type on a white background, that said “Move Fast and Break Things.” And every time I think about the company, I realize it has done just that—to itself. But I think that Zuckerberg, and the people who work at Facebook, also realize that the things they have broken are things that are going to be very difficult to put back together.
As for myself, I have a "fake" account and offer nothing more about my identity other than who I totally trust "irl" (or quite a number of RI people!) -- I offer no personal information of mine and I never do it about anyone I know ever. I would never put a real pic of me on it and nor would I of another person. My profile photo is from my dad's like 1965 year book (just some random guy he didn't know and I thought it was a rad photo. He has a crazy mustache wearing dark aviators and is surrounded by a lot of other people some 50+ years ago so I figured I wasn't post doxxing him). I am waaaay late to the "party" (I started my account like 1.5 years ago) but FB has become "invaluable" to keep up with these "trends" because of the feeds that I get. I actually have wound up checking CNN a lot just to corroborate if something is "true" when various idiots I "follow" make something trend, sometimes with just a few comments. There is very little that is edifying other than those I know from here who continue on, a few real life peeps who I know their updates won't depress the fuck out of me and I only re-post shit other people have posted that I cannot disagree with. FB is so fucking lame and it seems everyone hates it. But it does "seem" to work as long as you only use it as an outpost/clearinghouse and keep rules of personal nature to you strict. It can definitely become a depression pit. There are a few people that I will not even look up at all because I know it will make me obsess on what went wrong. . .