Business Technology

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Adrian Weckler: The ugly truth about Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg says the recent scandal hasn’t impacted user numbers
Mark Zuckerberg says the recent scandal hasn’t impacted user numbers
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

What's your opinion about Facebook? Love it? Hate it? Scared by it? After weeks of scandal associated with the social networking giant, let's remind ourselves of a few home truths about Facebook. And let's question why so few of us have deleted our accounts after everything that's happened, despite so many of us proclaiming that we would do so.

I've been reporting on Facebook's current travails for weeks. I was also on that conference call with Mark Zuckerberg last week, where he faced journalists' questions.

And yet the most accurate, ruthlessly blunt summary of Facebook's essence is still contained in the notorious 2016 internal memo circulated by the company's vice president, Andrew 'Boz' Bosworth.

"We talk about the good and the bad of our work often," wrote Boz. "I want to talk about the ugly. We connect people. That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. Maybe it even saves the life of someone on the brink of suicide. So we connect more people.

"That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people.

"The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.

"That's why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices.

"All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.

"The natural state of the world is not connected. It is not unified. It is fragmented by borders, languages, and increasingly by different products. The best products don't win. The ones everyone use win.

"I know a lot of people don't want to hear this. Most of us have the luxury of working in the warm glow of building products consumers love. But make no mistake, growth tactics are how we got here."

I apologise for quoting virtually his entire memo. But it is arguably the most brutally incisive, truthful description of Facebook yet articulated.

When it comes to it, despite everything, most of us are drawn to an effective, socially connecting service like bees to honey. And considerations around the potential damage that happens along the way are simply submerged.

Why? Human nature.

Last Wednesday, on a conference call with journalists, Mark Zuckerberg was asked how many people had deleted their Facebook accounts or cut down on their Facebook usage.

"I don't think there has been any meaningful impact we've observed," he said.

Janey. Remember, this is after the worst month in Facebook's history.

A month where it has been bashed by regulators, politicians and - almost to the beat of the same drum - the entire world's media.

A month where those with all sorts of other axes to grind about social media companies have summoned their biggest arsenals and unloaded with both barrels.

While it's still too early to definitively say (we won't actually know until Facebook's next quarterly earnings results), it's starting to look like people are unwilling to budge from their established behaviour on today's social platforms.

I've argued before that Facebook has become a daily utility, not quite at the level of Google but not far behind. For many people, it's easier to give up a phone number than a Facebook account. After all, that's where the majority of their communication is, if you take WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) into consideration. (Yes, yes, I know you need a mobile number to get a WhatsApp account, but you take my point.)

And in case you think I'm talking about some sort of tech-focused niche, sorry but around two million Irish adults use Facebook every single day. By some indices, a majority of Irish people spend more time on social apps than on traditional mobile or landline services combined.

In short, it doesn't look like Facebook's real challenges come from people getting disgusted with it and moving to some other platform.

But that doesn't mean that the company is out of the woods.

If Facebook is increasingly seen as the utility I think it has become, it is heading squarely for greater regulation, whether it wants to or not.

It's not yet clear what the tipping point will be, but I suspect it could be related to time spent using it for basic communications. If its growth trajectory continues in the EU, for example, the European Commission will have to look again at it more as an infrastructural element itself rather than something that exists on top of another piece of infrastructure (such as 'the internet').

Greater regulation is something that telecoms and media firms, in particular, have been baying for for years. But it's not clear that state intervention will do much to help their particular causes (such as reversing advertising declines in traditional media or sending people back to old-fashioned phone calls). Instead, regulation is likely to clear a path for other internet companies to compete more effectively in the digital world that is rapidly replacing the analogue one.

But one thing is clear: the social network will continue to form the most expansive profiles on us that it can for commercial ends.

"Like most of the hard decisions that we make, this is one where there is a trade-off between values that people really care about," Zuckerberg said on the journalist conference call.

"I do think that there is some discomfort (with) how data is used in systems like ads. But I think the feedback is overwhelming on the side of wanting a better experience. You know, maybe it's 95 to five or something like that."

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