The artificial humans in the movie Blade Runner were created with an un-alterable four year life-span. Modern web-focused companies don’t have their deaths quite so deeply coded into their cellular structure as the Replicants did, but in the end, the things that suddenly tear them apart turn out to have been obvious all along. And like the fictional characters of that film, these corporate life-forms don’t take their impending doom lying down. Instead they fight desperately for life, even if the reason for their death was obvious all along.
Over the last couple of years Facebook has successfully grown out of its rebellious teenage phase. But now it can no longer simply get out of any problem by adding more users. The company has instead taken on the hard work of making money for its investors.
As it enters this corporate middle-age smart folks have started talking publicly about the problems Facebook faces. Most of these premature eulogies are (rightly) focused on the practical results of trying to increase revenues, and they describe in great technical detail what Facebook is doing wrong. But they also assume that those things should drive users away, even if they don’t.
In the case of Facebook it seems pretty clear that in order to find greater and greater revenue the company has begun to diminish the user experience to the point where it’s hard to know what the core experience is anymore. For now Facebook remains better than most of the alternatives because users can’t easily migrate the deep web of social connections contained in their Facebook account. But the value of those relationships is being reduced daily in the name of profits.By aggressively selling the private data of their audience, it has somehow become a moral imperative that the audience should leave in outrage. It’s nice to think that people work that way, but in my experience it’s rarely the morality of the platform that sends the audience packing. Sure, there’s unfocused anger and occasional public rage-quitting; everyone likes to feel fully justified in their actions when the moment of decision finally comes. But even if people like to tell themselves that they’re quitting based on some higher philosophical premise, most of the time it’s the change in the quality of the user experience that finally prompts action. How many commercials do you need to see per hour before you finally turn off your TV? Once a company makes too many decisions at the expense of the user they soon have no users at all.
I’m sure that people at Facebook headquarters are constantly poring over their metrics data to make sure that they’re riding the edge of destruction as closely as possible without it going critical. But that only means that when the failure does come it will be catastrophic. Whenever the exodus happens in earnest it won’t be something that can easily be fixed by a redesign or tweaking the privacy settings. Replicants are strong and fast, but they lack the experience needed to save themselves in moments of crisis. That’s what took Leon. It also got down MySpace and Yahoo!, and it’s starting to look like it’ll be the fate of Facebook as well.
That’s because as a single unit “you” isn’t all that useful or valuable. The true product of social media is the data that comes from aggregating all your information together with everyone else’s. As a clump, the metrics can be profiled and processed in interesting ways that allow you to be packaged and sold as part of a group. Once you’ve been targeted as someone who is more likely to buy, do, or say something, you can be sold anything from magic potions, to clothes and booze (if that’s what you’re into). The more users that show up the more ways they can be packaged and sold things based on that profile information. In the case of Facebook the product is access to those well-focused groups of users, and they have more of them than anyone in the history of the world ever.Whether users are aware of it or not, free services on the web have always been about giving people some value and utility from the information about themselves they reveal when they use the site. The phrase “if you’re not the customer, you are the product” has been used to describe the way this transaction works, and while it does give some insight, it isn’t totally true.
Of course it is true that the telescope of big data that Facebook sells to the marketers can also be turned into a microscope. Like burning an ant with the focused light of the sun through a magnifying glass, any individual could be profiled in ways that are almost terrifying to imagine. But while it’s real, I also don’t think that a vague fear is an easily exploitable weakness. Outside of the pundits and the developers who tell us that we should protect and value our privacy in ways that are practically impossible to execute, my experience is that fear and outrage over possible abuse don’t often motivate people to take action.
To put it another way, despite the tingling terror you can derive from telling someone that Facebook can (and probably does) figure out almost anything about anyone from their posts and likes, most people don’t care enough to actually leave because it isn’t about them. What does get people running for the exits (or simply not logging in tomorrow) is when the site stops delivering a service that’s worth sacrificing your privacy for.
Although most people would have a hard time expressing it, the fundamental aspect of what a user gets out of Facebook is connection. You want to see what my connections are up to, and in return your friends can find out what you’re up to. If you’re connecting with your Mom, finding out about your best friend’s kids, and wishing your sister happy birthday —all without having to make a phone call— that can be a pretty good deal for a little bit of information about what kind of pizza you like to eat.
After a few years what began as a small group of relatively strong connections with people you actually knew has turned into a constantly growing web of increasingly vague and tenuous relationships. Your “friends” now include family, co-workers, romances (past and present), along with murky social and business connections that probably seemed important at the time, but are now essentially strangers. With the addition of the Like button you’re also no longer only connecting with people, but also to companies, concepts and things.
That is where privacy starts to matter from a user perspective: Facebook values access, so the door between who you know, what you do, and what you like swings wide. A bewildering array of broken and suspect privacy settings makes that door impossible to keep closed, so with every new person, place or thing you add to your list of connections you need to reconsider what it is that you can safely reveal without possibly exposing too much to the wrong people. Instead they begin to sanitize the experiences they share in order to make it blander and more consumable by everyone.
What was once a place where you exposed your life to those you trust has slowly becoming a curated “family friendly” version of your experiences dictated by an ever growing (but mysterious) web of vague social relations. And yes, college kids shouldn’t post pictures of themselves sucking on a beer bong at a frat party, but now you need to be nervous about that slinky dress you wore to your salsa class last weekend, or that political figure you liked yesterday. Every picture, post, or like is intermediated by considerations of how it will be perceived by people you’ve never met and the censor that once worked in a New York City office building is now inside of you. You’ve become a sanitized public brand — so get to work hiding your real self.
That state didn’t happen overnight, and despite all the hand-wringing the droves have yet to leave. But they have become far more vulnerable now than they were when their privacy shenanigans began in earnest a couple of years ago. Why? Because self-censorship and the danger of revealing sensitive details about your life was acceptable if you at least knew that all that effort was going to allow you to actually communicate with your list of connections.
But Facebook needs to profit off of your access as well. So you never know who is going to see your posts anymore. Will your Mom even see that picture you posted with your aunt? Will your sister find out you won the Salsa competition last Friday, no matter what dress you wore?
Having forced you into acting as your own television network, Facebook still demands control of what gets on the air, who gets to watch it, and what time the episodes of your life will be on. And, of course, they sell all your commercial breaks to the highest bidder giving you nothing in return but the occasional coupon for liking Target. Why not just send a text?
To add insult to that injury, they’re making it difficult for the people buying your life as well. A few years ago getting a person to like something gave guaranteed access to those people. Now, paying to acquire a person only gives a marketer the opportunity to pay again in the hope that they’ll reach the people they already spent good money to connect with. The dream of targeted marketing has been replaced by a crap-shoot that emulates the scatter-shot demographics of broadcast television.
When you’ve reached the point that neither the audience nor the customer is satisfied, Facebook is clearly vulnerable to the kind of disruptive forces that have overwhelmed every other media. Ask network TV, or the music industry, how much safety there is in being the only game in town. At least movies have long-tail content to sell. Being on the web only makes you more vulnerable when the new thing comes along.
At their best, social media services like Facebook and Twitter are about yelling into the void and praying for a response. The belief that if you do it well enough, at very least the people you care about will hear you. Sadly, on Facebook, there’s no longer any guarantee that anyone will.
Having settled on a business model that sells access to users makes it against Facebook’s interest to improve the user experience and increase utility. They’ve already gathered all the audience and gone public. Now the game is about finding ways to increase their profitability or the share prices will sink. As that happens it gets harder and harder for them to do that in a way that pleases anyone but the shareholders. Welcome to the death spiral.
For those of us attuned to the ways of the web it’s becoming clear that Facebook has reached the end of an era. We may not be able to visualize the full details of how they’re going to go down, but it’s starting to feel as if down is the only way they can go. Like a Blade Runner Replicant at the end of its lifespan, you can begin to see the desperation as they begin to realize the limitations of their own existence, and are helpless to escape their fate. Their death was simply built into their DNA. To misquote Eldon Tyrell “the light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Facebook.”