Facebook became the world’s largest social network by encouraging its users to publicly share photos and messages. Now, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has a new vision for the company, one focused on privacy. According to a blog post, encrypted messaging will be offered across all of its major products and allow people to make private communications that are short-lived. The company will also develop new products, such as payments and e-commerce, in those messaging services that could eventually allow it to diversify from the ad-supported business model that led to privacy missteps.
In an interview, Mr. Zuckerberg positioned the shift as a response to user demand, saying people prefer to communicate in small groups or one-to-one, similar to its WhatsApp messaging platform. Today, most users on Instagram and Facebook distribute their thoughts to a public audience. “I don’t view this as replacing the public platform. Facebook and Instagram will continue to get more important,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. But “there is as rich of a platform to develop around the intimate and private communications as there is around the more public one.”
Facebook will make the shift partially by integrating Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger so users worldwide can easily communicate with each other across the networks. Facebook would become a type of “digital living room,” where discussions could be intimate, ephemeral, and secure. Mr. Zuckerberg said in bog post, “I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.”
Despite the privacy positioning, Facebook will continue to collect data from existing sources – the core social network, the Instagram app, an Internet tracking system, and countless other apps that can send personal information – and now increasingly from messaging apps. These would also interface with businesses for payment applications similar to the Chinese super-app WeChat. Developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd., WeChat has become the de facto portal to the rest of the internet for Chinese citizens because through the app, users can perform a multitude of tasks, like pay for items, communicate with friends and order takeout.
Edison Research data suggests Facebook’s primary social network lost an estimated 15 million users since 2017 in the U.S. alone. These are primarily in the coveted 12-to-34-year-old demographic. Yet Facebook’s most recent quarterly report shows a company at the peak of its power, earning record profits and increasing its overall user base as people shift to Instagram and WhatsApp. As Mr. Zuckerberg referenced, people are devoting more time to messaging, small groups, and ephemeral post like Instagram stories and Facebook will move in that direction.
This change in strategy follows years of scandal for Facebook, much of it originating from public sharing of posts. Operatives in Russia have used it to publish disinformation to sway elections, others have used Facebook Groups to bolster ideologies around issues such as anti-vaccination, and others have harvested openly shared information for targeting advertising and creating voter profiles. Facebook played a key role in the spread of hate speech in Myanmar at a time when Rohingya refugees were forced to flee to Bangladesh following persecution.
All of this has shown a spotlight on Facebook, badly damaging the company’s reputation, and creating mistrust with users.
- There are societal, political and national security implications for this move given the extent to which Facebook’s services are used by more than 2.7 billion people around the world. In some countries, Facebook and its other apps are often considered as being the internet.
- Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign, gained access to private information on more than 50 million Facebook users sparking questions about how the social media giant protects user information.
- A recent Axios/Harris poll put Facebook’s brand reputation towards the bottom, ahead of only the U.S. government, Phillip Morris, Trump.org, Sears, Wells Fargo, and Dish.
Quests and Actions (Q&A)
- Is Facebook’s new direction an authentic commitment to privacy? Can Facebook make this transition to restore trust while implementing a new business and privacy model?
- Should Facebook be regulated?
- Are you one of the 15 million users who have left Facebook? Would you ever return?