WHAT’S the difference, I asked a tech-writer friend, between the billionaire media mogul Mark Zuckerberg and the billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch?
When Rupert invades your privacy, my friend e-mailed back, it’s against the law. When Mark does, it’s the future.
There is truth in that riposte: we deplore the violations exposed in the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s British tabloids, while we surrender our privacy on a far grander scale to Facebook and call it “community.” Our love of Facebook has been a submissive love.
But now, not so much. In recent weeks it seems the world has begun to turn a jaundiced eye on this global megaplatform. While that may not please Facebook’s executives, it is a good thing for the rest of us — and maybe for the future of social media, too.
The recent history of the Facebook phenomenon has been a serial bursting of illusions.
Most conspicuously, there was the disappointing public stock offering — disappointing, at least, to the prospectors who hoped to flip the stock for a quick payday. The I.P.O. did exactly what it was intended to do; it raised $6.8 billion for the young company to invest in its long-term future. Moreover, the plummeting value of the stock since the launch has generated a healthy skepticism about other new Internet businesses. Still, it can’t be fun for Facebook insiders to wake up to headlines containing words like “fiasco” and “debacle,” or to read press coverage suggesting that advertisers are not sold on Facebook as a brand platform.
Then there is the persistent attention to the dark side of life online. It wasn’t an entirely new thought a year ago when I fretted in this paper that the faux friendships of Facebook and the ephemeral connectedness of Twitter were displacing real rapport, real intimacy. The response at the time — “Luddite!” “Sacrilege!” — suggested that a fair number of people had elevated a very useful tool into an object of mindless worship. But the research keeps reinforcing the argument that social media, while an innovation with a wonderful menu of practical uses, are not a happiness machine. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” asked the cover of The Atlantic magazine last month. A resounding “yes” — lonely, and narcissistic and actually ill — was the answer.
Nor can Facebook’s marketing missionaries be pleased that their product shows signs of becoming simply uncool. While Facebook has colonized much of the world’s population, there is anecdotal evidence that teenagers are moving their online party to other platforms — Twitter, Tumblr, X-Box — in part because Facebook became a place where mom and dad hang out. You know the zeitgeist is trending against you when your product is mocked on “Girls,” the aggressively hip HBO millennials melodrama.
SHOSHANNA: Oh My God! You’re not serious? I mean — that’s like not being on Facebook.
JESSA: I’m not on Facebook.
SHOSHANNA: You are so [expletive] classy …
You may find a bit of poetic justice in this if you recall that, before it acquired its messianic aura, Facebook had its origins in an algorithm with the not-so-lofty mission of letting horny Harvard boys rate the looks of female classmates.
We should be as suspicious of the Facebook-is-over hype as of the original euphoria. Lee Rainie, who studies Internet culture at the Pew Research Center, said that polling does not reflect a significant Facebook backlash so far; the empire is still growing toward a billion users, and more and more people say they use it every day. What has changed is that users say they are more wary of posting private information — especially when contemplating a job hunt, a college application or a budding romance. And many Facebook users — a third, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll — are cutting back the time they spend there.
“The infatuation phase is morphing into a more mature phase,” Rainie told me.
Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society adds that this reckoning is mutual, and natural, as Facebook grows from a plaything born in a college dorm room into a very serious enterprise. “Even Facebook has to lose its own romantic vision of itself,” he said.
After a period of idealizing social media, the public is beginning to recognize that these are enterprises with ambitions and appetites. They are businesses. Public companies have an imperative to grow profits, which Facebook will do by monetizing you and me — serving us up as the targets for precision-guided advertising.
One of the most interesting stories I’ve read in the recent, more aggressive spate of coverage was Somini Sengupta’s report in The Times about Facebook’s entry into the Washington influence game. Every company, of course, protects its interests in the places where laws are made and adjudicated, so in hiring its corps of Washington insiders and dispensing cash from its political action committee, Facebook is just joining the mainstream. But Facebook’s way of friending the powerful is original. It ingratiates itself with members of Congress by sending helpers to maximize the constituent-pleasing, re-election-securing power of their Facebook pages. “If you want to have long-term influence, there’s nothing better than having politicians dependent on your product,” one envious Silicon Valley executive told me.
What might Facebook want from its new friends in Washington? It’s not hard to imagine. Since Facebook’s most promising path to prosperity is selling ads based on your likes and dislikes, the company will be wary of any government attempt to enforce privacy standards that interfere with the company’s ability to mine your information. Since the company is jostling for dominance with the likes of Google, Apple, Twitter and Amazon, it will be paying attention to antitrust actions that could curtail its ability to use its market muscle. (Jonathan Zittrain sent me a graphic that gives you a little sense of Facebook’s power in the marketplace. In 2010 Facebook was displeased with the developers of a game called Critter Island, one of many online games and services that basically rent space and services in the Facebook condominium. Facebook simply disabled the game, and the chart shows the user base collapsing from 14 million to zero in a couple of days.)
Beyond Washington, activists for various causes have upbraided Facebook for failing to protect dissidents who use the site to expose and mobilize against oppressive regimes. Critics say the company’s policy of forbidding pseudonyms — intended to assure more civil behavior online (and, a cynic might speculate, to enrich the value of the user base to advertisers) — makes it a risky communications tool in authoritarian states.
“That’s fine if you live in an ideal world,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, whose recent book, “Consent of the Networked,” examines the corporate sovereigns of cyberspace. “If you’re an activist in China, it leaves you extremely vulnerable.”
Her book persuaded one high-profile journalist, Steve Coll, to announce in The New Yorker that he was renouncing his citizenship in “Facebookistan,” which he had come to see as a highhanded corporate autocracy.
MacKinnon herself is not encouraging an exodus. She favors sticking around to help Facebook become more responsible. “It’s kind of like China — do you engage, or disinvest?” she said. “I’m still at the engagement stage. The main thing is that people need to act more as constituents, not as passive residents.”
And in fact, she says, Facebook has responded to activist pressure by, among other things, becoming an observer at the Global Network Initiative, an important forum for the advocacy of privacy and free expression.
Somewhere on his way from Harvard geek to Silicon Valley titan, Mark Zuckerberg adopted an ideology of “radical transparency.” He is getting what must be an uncomfortable dose of that now. This surge of scrutiny ought to make us smarter, more sober consumers. The challenge for Facebook is how to retain the trust of its wised-up users even as he commoditizes us — that is, how to sell us on without creeping us out.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 12, 2012
An earlier version of this column misstated the amount of money Facebook’s public stock offering raised for the company to invest in its future. The offering raised $16 billion, but only $6.8 billion of that went to the company. The rest went to early investors.