Facebook turns 20 this month. That’s forever, in internet time.
Facebook’s first generation of users is gliding into middle age along with Mark Zuckerberg, its hoodied founder, chair and chief executive. In those two decades, a parade of internet and social media hopefuls has come and gone, or been bought and consolidated, Borg-like, into companies like, well, Facebook.
But Facebook abides.
How? Why? This is a company that has been beset by enough catastrophe, reputational damage, legislator grillings, breathtaking regulatory fines and cockamamie decision-making to have sunk just about any other firm. Entire books have been written about its crises.
Its inept data-sharing partnership with Cambridge Analytica created one of the social media era’s biggest scandals. Facebook whistleblowers, whether from Cambridge Analytica, its non-employee content moderators, or disillusioned company insider Frances Haugen, command global attention and headlines. So do the numerous fines and penalties from regulators.
Yet its share price rose right after the US Federal Trade Commission whacked it with a $5 billion (€4.6 billion) fine. Only for Facebook – renamed Meta shortly after the Haugen disclosures – could a later €1.2 billion fine from the Irish Data Protection Commission look modest. And again, have seemingly little impact on the social media juggernaut.
And there’s so much more. Facebook’s handling of personal data was at the centre of landmark European Court of Justice opinions (the two Schrems decisions), defining data privacy for hundreds of millions of EU citizens and forced the rewriting of international trade agreements on data transfers between the US and EU.
On the content side, its inadequate moderation and toxic algorithms have helped drive the dissemination of disinformation and dangerous content, and the exploitation of the vulnerable across Facebook and Meta’s other big platform, Instagram. Last week, at a congressional hearing, an apologetic Zuckerberg was told by a US senator that he had “blood on your hands” as families claimed children were harmed by using its sites.
Yet 24 hours later, Facebook/Meta’s share price jumped (again), when the company announced a first ever shareholder dividend (a scheme that will add $700 million to Zuckerberg’s personal wealth).
Investors, it seems, are easily placated. Mass layoffs brought a corporate financial lift, even though many of the 11,000 employees shed lost jobs because of Zuckerberg’s untimely pivot to building a metaverse no one wanted, resulting in a staggering $20 billion in losses during 2021 and 2022 and wiping off a fifth of the company’s value.
But Facebook abides.
As with Donald Trump, the reasons for its staying power can baffle. But two decades ago, Facebook was hugely appealing. It had a simple, professional look, addictive features, and a smart growth approach of leveraging a user’s friends network.
As your friend network expanded, so too did your reasons for staying and using Facebook. Early social media successes like MySpace looked amateurish by comparison. Facebook grew, fast.
Then, Facebook/Meta both eliminated key competitors and made smart investments by acquiring images-focused platform Instagram, and messaging platform WhatsApp.
If EU and US regulators had been wiser and more watchful, they’d have blocked such moves, significantly limiting years of massive data collection and usage concerns, and sparing us monopolist worries about the Meta monolith now.
But they didn’t, and Facebook/Meta now has pervasive, permeating spread, and therefore, enormous staying power. Facebook’s demise is regularly predicted, but it just keeps adding users. It has a mind-boggling three billion, the population of the entire world when I was a kid.
What many people, especially social media-savvy types, consistently fail to see is that, though they personally may dislike or no longer use Facebook, billions of people do.
That includes many – raising my hand here – who would like NOT to use it. But it remains an easy-to-use, important meeting place and information source for nearby or far-flung friends and family, colleagues and hobbyists, interest groups, support groups and organisations, charities and services.
It’s a crucial network for activists and human rights defenders globally, too. Sure, a younger generation may have moved away from Facebook, but then, there’s Insta, WhatsApp and the lure of virtual reality gaming hardware with Oculus.
Meta retains extraordinary investor confidence. Facebook shares debuted at $38 in 2012 and hover at $454 this week, demonstrating its lumbering ability to overcome drastically hard knocks, and, very likely, a long-standing too-big-to-fail loyalty and existing financial commitment from major shareholders, venture capitalists and institutional investors.
But its future holds enormous, if worrying potential, too. Meta’s seen as a likely contender in the development of artificial intelligence. And for the long game, there’s every likelihood that someday, the online world will tip towards the metaverse, where Meta has sunk time and money.
This should galvanise regulators and lawmakers. We need to prevent our online future concentrating further into the hands of a few billionaires and their mega-companies.
A very strong argument remains for breaking Meta up, and its future development demands better constraints and oversight. Yes, Meta brings benefits to many. But we’ve already seen the troubles that accrue when Facebook/Meta abides.