Seventeen years from its founding, is the world better or worse off having Facebook, the social media empire, in it? And what about the emergence of Mark Zuckerberg, a tech rockstar guru who is one of the world’s most powerful people, and, of course, naturally, a mega-multi-billionaire?
It is difficult to contextualise whether Facebook and its other social media properties could or should be responsible for the overall welfare of the world, but its products have become so entrenched with modern society that it is possible to contemplate that they have a true and lasting impact on global human culture? Facebook has, of course, pushed the envelope to the point where it has created a whole new set of opportunities and problems, and it’s probably through that lens that the company and its founder should be analysed. Thus, the tension between free and almost universal connection with the world is pitted against the loss of privacy, resulting in users becoming “the product,” their attention manipulated and their personal data sold over the Internet.
Facebook and Zuckerberg have been in the public eye almost since day one, giving them a level of exposure and scrutiny that other tech juggernauts largely escaped in their early years. They were forced to grow up in public, exacerbating both vice and virtue, whereas the likes of Google and Amazon surfed the ‘tech is good’ wave during their extended ramp-up phases. By the time the world noticed it was on Facebook, Zuckerberg and his story had been immortalised by Hollywood in the 2010 feature The Social Network, featuring Jessie Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake, becoming another myth of mainstream culture. To a certain extent, that film marked the beginning of the end of the honeymoon with Silicon Valley, making ‘Zuck’ the face of the dangerous ambitions of Big Tech. Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’ culture went from idealised to vilified as users and journalists became increasingly sceptical of these companies and their founders.
Technology and the changes it produces were traditionally seen as a sort of addition to human culture. A layer or filter that is applied, accelerating and simplifying certain processes, which ultimately strips the different technologies of any ethical or moral implications. Yet, technologies are defined by the culture in which they were created, and, if successfully adopted, they take on a life of their own. This is particularly true in the digital age, where products are adopted virtually and virally by millions if not billions of users quickly. Facebook reached its first million monthly users the same year it was founded, 2004. It reached 100 million just four years later, went on to top one billion by 2012 and currently boasts 2.8 billion monthly active users, or roughly 36 percent of the global population.
The way a tech product works can be modified by its owner and developer, but at the end of the day it becomes what its users decide to do with it. Facebook and the rest of Silicon Valley have been accused of imposing their limited worldview on their billions of users. When society saw tech as good, this wasn’t an issue at all. Yet, when we started to critically question how and why we used technology, many of those issues bubbled to the surface. Without the naïveté and irreverence of the young Zuckerberg – a nerdy white college student in none other than Harvard University – this global dream of free digital interconnection would’ve probably been impossible. That is an absolutely good thing, yet, with that level of planetary reach comes huge responsibility. And that’s something Zuck and his Silicon Valley overlords tried to avoid for years.
As it turns years of age, Facebook and its suite of products, including WhatsApp and Instagram, have become a powerful force. They’ve allowed billions to become connected at little to no cost. Millions have built businesses and careers on these platforms, and they’ve become the main vehicle for consuming news and entertainment for a large portion of the global population. The company closed off 2020 with US$84 billion in revenue and US$29 billion in profit – up 58 percent from the previous year despite the global coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. Their successful business model has allowed them to provide these services at no cost, charging advertisers instead for access to their audiences. The ad-supported model allowed for exponential scaling of the product, quickly becoming a global phenomenon to become the strongest channel of communication at all scales, including for governments and companies.
This level of growth and relevance exceeded anyone’s capacity to anticipate the problems that naturally emerged. The central issue has to do with privacy, and the way people’s data is harvested and sold. Users can’t be blamed for failing to read terms and conditions and quickly adopting products and services that are extremely entertaining, useful and free. Facebook can’t be blamed for trying to monetise them either, but the Internet’s scale allowed them to build the largest social experiment in the history of humanity, and put it to the service of their bottom line. Thus, harvesting uses’ personal data, running algorithms powered by artificial intelligence on those data points and building products that maximise attention follows logically. When these tools are then used to spread disinformation and/or manipulate the political debate, we shouldn’t be surprised or ashamed, we should figure out how to make these products better.
When the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted (a group of political strategists and consultants gained access to a trove of personal data from Facebook, to which they then applied psychological models in order to target voters, ultimately used by the campaign that put Donald Trump in the White House), Zuckerberg quickly came out to say Facebook couldn’t be used to manipulate elections. That was in 2016. The power of the Internet became graphically clear last month when a group of conspiracy theorists raided the US Capitol seeking to disrupt the democratic process. Today, it feels as if Zuck and the rest of the Silicon Valley giants have acknowledged their power and the need to rein it in a bit, while governments across the globe scramble to try and regulate them.
Mark Zuckerberg is the last founder-CEO of a major technology company still in charge, with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announcing this week he was stepping down from his role as chief executive. Zuck, who is 36 years-old, will see his baby (Facebook) turn 18 next year. He is literally one of the few people in the world with the power to make things better — or worse — for billions of people. Facebook and the digital revolution have been great tools for humanity, but, being human-made, they will forever remain imperfect.