Adolescence can be a real drag. You sprout hair in odd places, get pimples, and generally have no idea what your place is in this world. And adults are just the worst!
It’s not quite that bad for Facebook, which is now 14 years old, but Mark Zuckerberg has realised he needs to spend some time helping his creation through some rocky times as it takes on the responsibilities of being a grown-up business. His resolution for this year is to fix the world’s biggest and most influential social media site.
“My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues. We won’t prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools. If we’re successful this year then we’ll end 2018 on a much better trajectory,” Zuckerberg said via a post on Facebook at the start of the year.
The first year of teenage life for Facebook last year was a tough one. Here are just a few of the issues Facebook has had to deal with in the past year:
● Russian influence in the 2016 US election, fake news, and the erosion of democracy and civil debate
● Harassment and bullying, especially of young people and women
● Content moderation and monitoring in the light of video streaming on Facebook Live of suicides and other disturbing events
● Fractious relationships with news outlets and publishers
● Studies and reports concluding that excessive social media could lead to depression
● Continuing prosecution by EU authorities concerning privacy controls and data collection and sharing
This is before we even get to more mundane matters like Facebook’s tinkering with its News Feed algorithm.
Many of these issues have been brewing for a few years, but just like a nasty pimple threatening to rear its head before a date, they all seem to have got ugly in the last 12 months or so. And these are big, serious issues that require far more than just a coding hack to fix them. Facebook is now regularly involved, some would say mired, in legal, political and social entanglements that other social media platforms don’t have to worry so much about.
All this of course comes with the territory of being as big as Facebook is, with around 2 billion active monthly users at last count. Let that number sink in for a moment. That’s a little more than one in every four people on Earth. Any business of this size is going to have some very hard to solve problems.
In his post, Zuckerberg acknowledges the scale of the challenge. He likens it to the early days of the site, back in 2009, when Facebook still felt fresh and was taking its first steps to becoming the iconic company it is today.
“Today feels a lot like that… The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.”
Interestingly, he also implicates Facebook as part of the tech industry’s “centralization” problem, in which a handful of big companies have come to dominate and monopolise their fields, possibly to the detriment of consumers and economies, as well as citizens and societies.
“A lot of us got into technology because we believe it can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s mission have always been “give people the power”.) Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed technology would be a decentralizing force.
“But today, many people have lost faith in that promise. With the rise of a small number of big tech companies — and governments using technology to watch their citizens — many people now believe technology only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.”
He also points to where he might go digging for solutions: “There are important counter-trends to this — like encryption and cryptocurrency — that take power from centralized systems and put it back into people’s hands. But they come with the risk of being harder to control.”
How exactly would something like blockchain be applied to Facebook? What would a decentralized Facebook look like? Are their lessons from cryptocurrency for how Facebook handles something like trust in content and fake news? Is Zuckerberg looking at something like Steemit, a blockchain-based social media platform, as a possible model or even as an acquisition?
The stakes will be a lot higher for Zuckerberg with this challenge than they were for something like learning Mandarin (his 2010 challenge) or to write at least one thank-you note every day (challenge 2014).
Smaller social media platforms will be looking at ways they can pick off disgruntled Facebook users, with young people already moving over to sites like Snapchat so they don’t have to suffer their parents online as well as in real life.
While Zuckerberg is fixing problems, his competition might be looking to change the game entirely. By year’s end, Facebook might have fewer problems, but it might also have fewer users and possibly less influence. After all, it was only 10 years ago that Facebook surpassed MySpace as the most popular social network.