Feb 05, 2019 14:37:50 IST
Facebook, the world’s largest social networking website with around 2.7 billion users across its services, has turned 15 years old.
Yes, it has indeed been that long since most of us in India decided to leave that erstwhile Google-owned social networking site Orkut and migrate to the new kid on the block — Facebook.
What started off with a noble intention to connect people has quickly transformed into a global behemoth. As Facebook turns 15, it is facing its toughest year yet to undo all the damage that’s been done in the last couple of years when it comes to user trust, data privacy and related matters.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg started off the anniversary post thus: “Fifteen years ago today, I launched the first version of the Facebook website from my college dorm. At the time, it struck me that there were many websites to find almost anything — books, music, news, information, businesses — except for what actually matters most: People. So I built a simple website organised around people, where we could connect with the people we wanted and share what was important to us.”
Well, Facebook may have eventually become what Zuckerberg mentions in the paragraph above. But it’s a widely known fact that it started off in his dorm room as Facemash where the male students from Harvard would rate the female students on their ‘hotness’. Facemash eventually became Thefacebook which then dropped ‘The’ to become Facebook. Zuckerberg calls ‘FaceMash’ a prank website he made in 2003 and claims it was not related to Facebook which came out on 4 Feb 2004.
Also, Zuckerberg’s claims about there being no website to find ‘People’ is not exactly true. Before Facebook, there were many social networks such as MySpace, Hi5, Orkut, but it was still the early days of the internet and these enterprises couldn’t be sustained as Facebook began to climb the popularity charts. To its credit, Facebook took that template and made it into one of the biggest money spinners in the world. Along the way, it absorbed probable rival apps such as Instagram, WhatsApp and things it couldn’t buy — Snapchat — it copied from liberally.
Let’s see what else Zuckerberg had to say in his letter, and the bits he conveniently didn’t touch upon. Zuckerberg’s letter content is italicised.
Within a year, more than one million students were connecting on the site. In a couple of years, we were working on making the service available to everyone. It took about four years for 100 million people to connect, and less than a decade for 1 billion people to connect. Today, about 2.7 billion people are connected using our services.
Zuckerberg speaks the truth here. Facebook caught gradually and took a while to become the behemoth that it is now. Its active user base outstrips the populations of most countries in the world. Facebook is, for all practical purposes, a digital village where many people live out their lives. We have seen women giving birth on Facebook, people raising money for the treatment of diseases, volunteers helping out during a crisis or emergency using Facebook. But at the same time, murders and suicides have been streamed live on it, our personal data has been stolen by harmless looking quizzes and practices such as paying teens money to access their mobile data are common, countries have used Facebook to spread propaganda and much much more. For every good thing that Facebook is known for, there are equal number, if not more, of harmful things that the platform has been used for.
Much of people’s experience in the past was defined by large hierarchical institutions — governments, mass media, universities, religious organisations — that provided stability but were often remote and inaccessible. If you wanted to progress, you worked your way up the ladder slowly. If you wanted to start something new or spread a new idea, it was harder without the blessing of these institutions.
This could have been true in the earlier days of Facebook, till 2012 to be precise. Post-September 2012, Facebook made changes in its algorithms that would reduce the reach of your post or your website among your audience. The reason? Facebook wanted you to spend to make your post visible to all your friends and followers of your Page — the genesis of Promoted Posts. Sure, Facebook provided a free platform for anyone wanting to promote their personal brand or website. But getting an audience and convert that audience into paying customers involves you paying Facebook — not to mention that you are already doing that in a way by sharing your personal information with the site. Facebook has been accused of selling your personal information to advertisers or other companies to make money. So while Zuckerberg may try to paint an altruistic picture of his platform, the fact remains that if you want visibility on Facebook, you pay.
If you wanted to reach new customers for your business, you often had to buy expensive ads or billboards.
Dear Zuckerberg, honestly, Facebook is no different.
For the last couple of years, most of the discussion has been about new social and ethical issues that these networks raise…
Well, this was a long time coming. In its quest to make profits, Facebook has been found guilty, multiple times, of letting the platform become a hub for misinformation campaigns. The first murmurs around this were heard post the 2016 US Presidential Elections, where Facebook was accused of manipulating voters. Zuckerberg called this accusation crazy. What followed was a complete meltdown of Facebook as well as other tech giants such as Twitter and Google, when it emerged that all of them were guilty of propagating fake news, having Russian trolls on their ad platforms paying money to launch campaigns against Democrat candidates, etc.
Miscreants used the same tools promoted by Facebook to spread their false messages and reach a sizeable audience, to make money. The scam that was run by Macedonian teens is quite well documented.
Long story short, Facebook was gamed for achieving not so noble goals.
When this was pointed out to Facebook, the company overlooked it as user engagement was the only thing that concerned it, even if it was engagement triggered by fake news.
We were barely out of the post-US Elections accusations when a new controversy hit Facebook — the Cambridge Analytica data scandal — which led to the revelation of a data breach involving close to 87 million users, as a result of a mere 300,000 people taking a harmless psychology quiz on Facebook. The network effect, so to speak, was at work here, and Facebook’s reach is so wide that even 5 lakh Indians got caught in the breach.
Zuckerberg in an editorial in The Washington Post, had promised to clear any doubts its users had about understanding its privacy settings, first in 2010. This clarification has been often repeated since and the Privacy Settings of Facebook are still as confusing as ever.
Since Cambridge Analytica, it has been one PR disaster after another for Facebook. For its part, Facebook has been announcing measures to contain the misuse of its platform, we keep hearing how it will be using AI and experts to keep fake news under check. Fact-checking experts, though, are disillusioned with Facebook’s policies. This pattern of Facebook saying something and not following through has become so repetitive that there are huge questions marks about whether Facebook should be broken up into parts to ensure better management. But this is mere speculation. We all know that as long as Zuckerberg has a majority of the voting rights on the Facebook board, he can’t be kicked out anytime soon.
We’ve made real progress on these issues and built some of the most advanced systems in the world to address them, but there’s a lot more to do.
One thing you have to give to Zuckerberg and his team — he’s optimistic. I don’t know if that’s a management style — where you keep countering allegations with promises of doing better. And then eventually screw up.
Regarding privacy issues, Facebook had promised the Federal Trade Commission in 2011 that it would undergo a privacy evaluation every year for 20 years — after charges that it was making private user information public without warning came to light. It’s been eight years since, and new Facebook-related scandals are still emerging from the woodwork, enlightening us about the ingenious ways in which Facebook shares user data as well as gathers data on rivals. It was even found guilty of running mood-changing exercises on the platform.
Zuckerberg keeps talking about how Facebook is increasingly using AI to tackle a lot of its issues such as fake news, harmful content and so on. This seems to be predicated on the fact that we have reached a stage of ‘Artificial General Intelligence’ which can detect things such as nuance, common sense, language semantics on the same level as human beings — which is not the case. We are still years away from AI reaching human-like levels, till then, humans and AI will have to work in tandem. Zuckerberg makes huge claims about how using AI has solved certain problems, but there are no hard numbers to verify his claims. When Zuckerberg, for instance, claimed in front of the US Congress, that its AI algorithms were already finding and deleting 99 percent of terrorist propaganda and recruitment efforts by ISIS, the Counter Extremism Project (a nonprofit NGO that monitors terror activities) immediately called bullshit on it, as they still found examples of extremist content and hate speech on Facebook.
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 emphasize 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.
Zuckerberg very cheekily is trying to pass off the resistance that Facebook is facing from all quarters as ‘overly emphasising the negative’. Well, Zuckerberg just needs to look at his statements and promises over just the last two years, and try honestly answering why anyone shouldn’t be cynical of his company?
2018 saw the departure of Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Earlier, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum also announced his exit (his partner Brian Acton had even called for #DeleteFacebook). Both these acquisitions have grown to have a billion plus members each. In fact, Instagram’s popularity has reached levels where even Facebook is feeling the heat. During such a time, with the departure of these prominent figures and Zuckerberg putting his inner circle members as replacements, how can anyone in his or her right mind not be sceptical of Facebook?
“Empowering the people,” says Zuckerberg, and we hear that often. Here’s a way, Zuckerberg was planning to empower millions of Indians some years ago: Free Basics. This free internet program would allow Facebook to offer free internet services to users who subscribed to a mobile phone plan — provided they only accessed the websites that Facebook had whitelisted. Naturally, this move was in complete violation of network neutrality principles and India did not allow Facebook to launch this scheme here. But countries such as Myanmar, Phillippines, among others gave Facebook the green signal for Free Basics. We are seeing how a Facebook walled-garden has affected the societies in these countries. In Myanmar, Facebook’s free internet was used as a means to spread hate against a community whereas in the Phillippines, its government used Facebook Free Basics to spin a narrative on the drug war and eventually win elections. Facebook may have an idealised definition of ‘empowering the people,’ but it doesn’t always play out that way in the real world.
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.
One really can only hope that the next 15 years of Facebook are ‘profoundly positive’. The last two years have been filled with one bit of bad news after another. All said and done, Facebook is too huge to be ignored. India has close to 300 mn Facebook users. If you are one of those rare people who doesn’t use Facebook, then you would surely be one of the people using WhatsApp or Instagram or Messenger. With the original founders out, and Zuckerberg having complete control over these platforms, user privacy will continue to remain a huge concern. Increased scrutiny of the social media giant is the only way to keep Zuckerberg and company on their toes. With its user base, Facebook has the potential to do a lot of good. It just needs to be reminded of that often.
I’m grateful to everyone in our community who believes this too and is building this world every single day. Here’s to a great 15 years to come.
Happy 15th Birthday, Facebook!
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