What Comes Next for Facebook?
2018 has certainly been something of a turning point for Facebook.
The company has come under intense scrutiny over how it uses people's data, how it secures such insights, how it can be used for political manipulation, and various other controversies in-between. Up till now, Facebook has been able to ride out comparable bumps in its path by deflecting and letting them blow over, but now, the questions raised are sticking.
And while not everyone is 100% sure exactly how misuse of their Facebook data can impact their thinking, the ongoing controversies have certainly made people more wary, and could result in a slowdown in Facebook usage overall.
In fact, we've already seen this - in Facebook's two most recent performance reports, we've seen that its active user rates in Europe have declined for the first time in the company's history.
You can see, too, the slowdown in North American users - that's somewhat to be expected, given that Facebook is close to saturation point. But a decline is definitely a red flag.
Is that because people are becoming more concerned about data misuse more broadly? It's hard to say, but habitual changes like this have definitely got Facebook itself rattled, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is vowing to do something about it.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg has told the company's top brass that they're now 'at war' and that they need to be more aggressive in tackling potential threats and concerns.
As per WSJ:
"During times of peace, executives can move more slowly and ensure that everybody is on board with key decisions, he said during the June meeting, according to people familiar with the remarks. But with Facebook under siege from lawmakers, investors and angry users, he needed to act more decisively, the people said."
That sounds like a return to Zuckerberg's previous 'Move Fast and Break Things' motto, which many within the company credit with forcing missteps. Zuckerberg toned that down in 2014, and has continued to soften the company's strategic approach since, but under renewed attacks, and with increasing questions about its internal practices, Zuck seems intent on fighting back, as opposed to taking a more measured response.
Could that be what saw Facebook launch it's Portal smart speaker device - essentially a Facebook-originated video camera in your home - amid the biggest privacy scandal in the company's history?
In some ways, Facebook had to release its device, or it risked losing touch with others in the space. But it is an aggressive move, at a questionable time. According to the WSJ report, Zuckerberg made his rallying cry in June, and Portal was released in September. It may well be a reflection of that 'war time' approach.
The question then is whether that'll be an effective path to help The Social Network navigate its way out of its current turmoil. Definitely, Facebook's not shirking away from the various problems raised, and it is doing more to address them. But many within the company have said that the 'Move fast...' approach is what lead to the data issues it's now dealing with. Could we be set to see the same in a few years time, when, say, Facebook realizes that its Portal devices were more vulnerable to hackers than it had first thought?
You'd assume not, you'd hope that Facebook, with all the resources it has at its disposal, would be at the forefront of such movements. But it's happened before. Is Zuck's stance a good sign for the platform's future?
The truth is, no one knows. Facebook, more broadly, is well positioned to keep going from strength to strength, via its main app, Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp, and investment in VR and AR tools. There seems to be no real risk to the company's future growth prospects, but the current situation is a concern, with tensions swirling around the company's top leaders, and various governments now calling for answers.
The app that started as a simple rating tool for Harvard students has now become a global powerhouse, arguably the most influential platform in history. Facebook data can reveal more about you than you realize, and can help businesses and governments single groups out, manipulate them, and angle opinion for their own gain.
It may not be apparent to all users how it can do this, but it can. Various studies have shown this, various research reports, including those conducted by Facebook, have illustrated this exact point.
In that sense, maybe this latest controversy will blow over, and we'll all move on and continue using Facebook as normal. Because Facebook itself holds all that data too, they are the ones with the most control over user influence.
Maybe Zuck and Co. can use this as a test to see if they can angle the controversy right out of our news feeds - and by extension, out of our consciousness, and we'll continue on, blissfully unaware of such manipulations.
It feels like 2018 has been a major turning point for The Social Network. But at the same time, I'd be willing to bet most people's personal usage of the platform hasn't changed in any significant way.
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