Happy Zuckerversary! Facebook officially turned 15-years-old on Monday, and its founder has blessed us with yet another blog post explaining how he sees his own creation in its terrible teens. After all this time, Mark Zuckerberg still either can’t or won’t accept that he runs a platform, not the internet.
From the very first sentence of Zuckerberg’s look back at Facebook’s past and rumination on its present, the 34-year-old CEO can’t help but reinforce his own self-created mythology. “Fifteen years ago today, I launched the first version of the Facebook website from my college dorm,” Zuckerberg writes. I’d have to check the archives more thoroughly, but this may have set a record for the fastest mention of the old college dorm room where a boy with a dream “single-handedly” launched a revolution.
Zuckerberg describes his younger self looking out over the landscape of the internet and noticing you could “find almost anything — books, music, news, information, businesses — except for what actually matters most: people.” While MySpace was founded a year earlier and numerous similar social networks pre-dated Facebook, there’s no denying that the simple interface and connection tools that Zuckerberg and company employed ended up connecting the more people than any platform ever. In the post, he celebrates the astonishing fact that “today, about 2.7 billion people are connected using our services.”
According to Internet World Stats, there are currently about 4.2 billion people who are connected to the internet. Facebook’s networks include WhatsApp and Instagram, and it has managed to pull more than half of the whole lot of us into using at least one of them. While most companies would be totally thrilled to have a user base larger than any nation on Earth, it’s important to remember that Zuckerberg isn’t even halfway to his goal of connecting everyone.
The trouble is, Zuckerberg makes it seem as though Facebook, with its already massive scale, is the internet. But that notion lets him off the hook for properly policing the thing he’s created because the internet has no master. It is its own ecosystem that requires decentralized control to function at its best. The tradeoff of decentralization is that there’s no one to blame for what a fucked up place the internet truly is. But Zuckerberg does not control the internet; he controls Facebook and all that comes with it. Until he begins to fully espouse the difference, he’ll continue to demand we just give him more time while he figures out how to clean up the messes his creation has made.
Reading Zuckerberg’s latest communique from the Facebook War Room feels a little like going back in time. Over the last two years, the company has faced more public outrage and political pressure than in its entire history, and it’s delivered a commensurate volume of apologies in turn. The apologies just breeze right over our heads because we’ve been hearing them for 15 years. These days, Facebook is best known for losing control of millions of users data, getting hacked, surveilling kids who are arguably too young to truly consent to such a thing, and being an exceptional tool for disseminating political propaganda.
It’s also known for providing incredible breeding grounds for mob violence in India and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The list of bad marks on Facebook’s record is huge and you’re probably familiar with a lot of it.
But before it was contending with Russian trolls, stood accused of facilitating housing discrimination, and reportedly advertising illicit opioids, there was the fear that Facebook would take over the internet. The worry was, essentially, that Facebook would centralize the majority of the activities we perform on the internet and gain unstoppable control of our online activity. We would all be at the mercy of its whims unless we wanted to go out into the wild and lonesome internet where only the rejects dwell. There’s still reason to be afraid of this kind of control, but it feels a little more distant these days.
Around the same time that Facebook started to look like a legitimate threat to the internet, there was a lot of optimism about the power of social networks as an organizational force. The Arab Spring and Occupy movements showed the world that these networks could be used for powerful grassroots organisations. And to read Zuckerberg’s most recent post, it feels like he’s still living in that vision of the future in which it was all about trusting the wisdom of the crowd. From the post:
As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society — from government to business to media to communities and more — there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasise the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.
To the contrary, while any rapid social change creates uncertainty, I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time. We’re still in the early stages of this transformation and in many ways it is just getting started. But if the last 15 years were about people building these new networks and starting to see their impact, then the next 15 years will be about people using their power to remake society in ways that have the potential to be profoundly positive for decades to come.
Zuckerberg acknowledges that there’ve been some growing pains in recent years. Today’s blog post follows yesterday’s release from the company’s corporate newsroom that explained what “Facebook is doing to address the challenges it faces.” It contained tired talking points about being faster to react and investing in new tools. Two weeks ago, Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he laid out “The Facts About Facebook.” In other words, Zuckerberg and his team spend a lot of time explaining what Facebook is while rearranging the deck chairs by saying they’re going to focus on “engagement” and changing the company motto to “bringing the world closer together.”
But in this writer’s opinion, it’s really easy to understand how Zuckerberg views Facebook: He seemingly wants it to be the internet—an inherently unruly, decentralized smorgasbord of digitised human activity, where pretty much anything that isn’t illegal is fair game. And no one ever holds the boss of the internet accountable since that boss does not exist.
In 2014, Time magazine took us “inside Facebook’s plan to wire the world.” It outlined Zuckerberg’s “philanthropic” mission to get everyone online with at least a little bit of basic internet service courtesy of Facebook. The only cost would be the users’ personal data. By 2018, Wired was asking “what happened to Facebook’s grand plan to wire the world?” In short, what happened is people in places like India woke up to the potential horrors of the Facebook “free basics” internet plan and rejected the “digital colonialism” that came with it. But what also happened is that Facebook just adjusted its plans and hunkered down to weather the storm as it always does. It plans to launch an internet satellite this year, and its efforts to build a Facebook-powered web are apparently just humming along behind the scenes.
That’s just how Facebook rolls. It tried to launch the “next generation of email” with less friction between messaging platforms and found that no one was interested. It took a step back, grew three gigantic messaging platforms (WhatsApp, Instagram messages, and Facebook Messenger) and plans to merge them in the near future. Facebook is currently offering video services, eBay-like markets, home assistants, photo-sharing services, AR and VR, and practically everything in between. Controversy-be-damned, Facebook will find a way to build an internet within the internet.
But Facebook is not the internet, and Zuckerberg doesn’t run the internet. He is the CEO of a private company that should be, to a reasonable extent, held responsible for what happens when people use its product. The problem is Facebook is too big to ever possibly do that. Zuckerberg maintains the same sort of libertarian/anarcho-ish view of Facebook that the pioneers of the web held for the internet at large. That is to say that through his actions and statements, Zuckerberg shows that he just wants to be neutral about what happens on Facebook and cash the checks. The problem is, Facebook’s algorithms manipulate and amplify content based on choices that Facebook’s team has made, eliminating any chance of neutrality and guaranteeing that not everyone is working on an even playing field.
Mark Zuckerberg has an unprecedented level of control over the publicly traded company after he negotiated a clever power arrangement that gave him final say over everything. He might feel a bit chastened over all of the recent criticism he’s received, but just last week his company posted record-setting profits in its quarterly earnings. His vision of locking users into his own little walled-garden seems to be holding pretty steady. He has a long way to go before he consumes every corner of the web like a flip-flop-wearing Galactus, but he’s making a lot of progress. Facebook is not the internet. Not yet, at least. And if it were the internet, we’d be in a lot of trouble.
The things that make Facebook such a disaster will never be “fixed” unless Zuckerberg gives up the idea of treating Facebook like it is the internet. Until then, expect more blog post reveries, utopian pronouncements, and happy shareholders.