After years of collecting way too much data, Facebook has finally been caught in the facilitation of one privacy debacle too many.
When Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, testifies before Congress this week, lawmakers will no doubt ask how Facebook might restore the public’s trust and whether it might accept some measure of regulation.
Yet in the big picture, these are the wrong questions to be asking.
The right question: What comes after Facebook? Yes, we have come to depend on social networks, but instead of accepting an inherently flawed Facebook monopoly, what we most need now is a new generation of social media platforms that are fundamentally different in their incentives and dedication to protecting user data. Barring a total overhaul of leadership and business model, Facebook will never be that platform.
Every business has its founding DNA. Real corporate change is rare, especially when the same leaders remain in charge. In Facebook’s case, we are not speaking of a few missteps here and there, the misbehavior of a few aberrant employees. The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.
What the journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1959 of “free” TV is also true of “free” social media: It is ultimately “the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandizing.”
But social media itself isn’t going away. It has worked its way into our lives and has come to help satistify the basic human need to connect and catch up. Facebook, in fact, claims lofty goals, saying it seeks to “bring us closer together” and “build a global community.” Those are indeed noble purposes that social media can serve. But if they were Facebook’s true goals, we would not be here.
The ideal competitor and successor to Facebook would be a platform that actually puts such goals first. To do so, however, it cannot be just another data-hoarder, like Google Plus. If we have learned anything over the last decade, it is that advertising and data-collection models are incompatible with a trustworthy social media network. The conflicts are too formidable, the pressure to amass data and promise everything to advertisers is too strong for even the well-intentioned to resist.
So what stands in the way of building a genuine alternative? It isn’t the technology. A good Facebook competitor needs merely to build a platform that links you with friends and allows posting of thoughts, pictures and comments. No, the real challenge is gaining a critical mass of users. Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users, will not disappear, and it has a track record of buying or diminishing its rivals (see Instagram and Foursquare). But as Lyft is proving by stealing market share from Uber, and as Snapchat proved by taking taking younger audiences from Facebook, “network effects” are not destiny. Now is the time for a new generation of Facebook competitors that challenge the mother ship.
One set of Facebook alternatives might be provided by firms that are credibly privacy-protective, for which users would pay a small fee (perhaps 99 cents a month). In an age of “free” social media, paying might sound implausible — but keep in mind that payment better aligns the incentives of the platform with those of its users. The payment and social network might be bundled with other products such as the iPhone or the Mozilla or Brave browser.
Another “alt-Facebook” could be a nonprofit that uses that status to signal its dedication to better practices, much as nonprofit hospitals and universities do. Wikipedia is a nonprofit, and it manages nearly as much traffic as Facebook, on a much smaller budget. An “alt-Facebook” could be started by Wikimedia, or by former Facebook employees, many of whom have congregated at the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit for those looking to change Silicon Valley’s culture. It could even be funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was created in reaction to the failures of commercial television and whose mission includes ensuring access to “telecommunications services that are commercial free and free of charge.”
When a company fails, as Facebook has, it is natural for the government to demand that it fix itself or face regulation. But competition can also create pressure to do better. If today’s privacy scandals lead us merely to install Facebook as a regulated monopolist, insulated from competition, we will have failed completely.
The world does not need an established church of social media.