That’s a Hunter S. Thompson reference for the literature-challenged. What a drug-fueled journalist’s rampage through 1970’s Las Vegas has to do with Facebook’s current state of paranoid affairs is open to interpretation, but this much is certain – Facebook, once an icon of modern America, is imploding… at least, as we know it.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, especially in the fickle age of social media. The digital titans of today become the MySpace’s of tomorrow – a nostalgic punchline to the not-too-distant past. But there’s a stark difference between cultural relevance and cultural security, and Facebook is burning the candle at both ends.
Certainly, even before Mark Zuckerberg’s encryption pivot and the recent string of digital dumpster fires that preceded it, Facebook has been steadily losing its popularity among younger demographics for years. Those of us who were the early adopters of the platform – Generation X – have largely outgrown it, while the next crop of coveted malleable minds – Millennials – have largely ignored it altogether. After all, there’s no such thing as a cool party that your parents are attending.
In fact, people under 25 in the U.S. (over 2.8 million of them) were sneaking out the backdoor as early as 2016, with 15 million less overall users today than there were in 2017. Younger audiences may have simply been following the winds of trend, but adults have become hip to the steady flow of headline-grabbing debacles that have marred the brand recently. In short, Facebook has a dire reputation problem across the board:
- The Cambridge Analytica scandal.
- Concerns about election-manipulating misinformation.
- Charges of anti-conservative bias.
- Security breaches.
- Privacy controversies.
And then there’s Zuckerberg himself, who does little to instill much confidence among us humans…
Now, 15 years after he launched the “digital equivalent of a town square,” Zuckerberg is promising a major shift in the other direction: “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever.”
Facebook’s decision to shift gears to focus on encrypted private infrastructure is a huge roll of the digital dice, maybe the biggest yet. A Facebook spokesperson is quoted as saying, “From a targeting and optimization perspective, Clear History will be similar to our existing partner data control in Ads Preferences—the data a person clears will not be used to personalize their ads. We’ll share more guidance and details on impact for advertisers as we get closer to the launch.”
But therein lies the rub, as articulated by a technology columnist for the Washington Post: “#1 reason to be suspicious of Zuckerberg’s privacy manifesto today … It doesn’t say how Facebook is going to make money in a world where it respects our privacy.” In other words, ethics don’t pay the bills (or for the private islands).
If this wasn’t enough, Facebook’s finances are also in the crosshairs of the Federal Trade Commision, who are negotiating a multibillion-dollar fine to settle the agency’s investigation into the company’s past privacy practices – the largest fine the FTC has ever levied on a tech company.
And then there’s politicians like 2020 presidential-hopeful Elizabeth Warren, who believe that Big Tech companies like Facebook have a monopoly chokehold on free enterprise. Warren’s proposal includes legislation that would make big tech firms “platform utilities” and bar them from owning participants on their platforms — so Amazon would have to give up Whole Foods, for example, and Facebook would have to drop WhatsApp and Instagram – cue the distant rumble of thunder now.
Is Facebook reinventing itself, or self-destructing once and for all? What the future looks like for the network is anybody’s guess. But without a doubt, seismic changes are coming for social media platforms and the businesses that thrive on their digital advertising, whether consumers Like it or not…