Finding a digital fix for Facebook

If anything is in need of a digital fix right now, it's Facebook. Can the social network be remade in a more privacy-centric form? Or is the fix actually a replacement?

Can there be a digital fix for our need for a digital fix?

There’s a play on words inherent in this year’s theme, that touches on both our addiction to digital – the digital fix – and the need to repair digital – the other digital fix.

Throughout its life NEXT has been a forward-looking conference, and it’s not in our nature to retreat from digital. Inventions cannot be uninvented, and as a neutral tool, digital is one of our species’ most powerful inventions yet. Instead, we advocate for mindful, thoughtful use of tools, with an eye to both the future and to the consequences of our use.

In short, we acknowledge humanity’s need for a fix of digital, but we also clearly see the need for digital to be fixed.

The Facebook factor

Let’s look at today’s poster child for that dilemma: Facebook.

Facebook has reached the position where it can command a dominant role in our political discourse because it, at its heart, fulfils a deep need in humanity – for ambient connection with our peers. No other tool yet invented has allowed a digital replication of the sort of ambient awareness you had of your community when your life revolved around a small village.

Facebook has taken the distributed networks of friends that we have developed through travel and online communication, and pulled them together into a digital village we can manage easily. That’s a phenomenal achievement.

It’s just a pity that Facebook has betrayed our trust, by playing fast and loose with some very personal data. In countries all around the world, the role of Facebook in subverting elections, in facilitating abusive uses of personal data is under scrutiny, and quite rightly. But this is not just a job for our regulators and governments. This is a job for us, too. Our digital lives are a product, and we are the product managers.

Clearly, the current situation should not continue. But how easy will it be to change?

While many within Facebook might be hoping that they can continue with business as usual – certainly an approach that has worked for 14 years or more – for the rest of us, that doesn’t feel like an acceptable option.

Can we fix Facebook?

Facebook HQ sign

A discussion amongst the NEXT team about the future of Facebook threw up an interesting idea from Martin Recke: Mark Zuckerberg will no longer be in charge of Facebook by the end of the year. It’s a staggering suggestion.

It’s hard to image a Facebook without Zuckerberg at the helm. He’s been so closely aligned with the site’s public image since the start, with co-founders quietly erased from the story with Stalin-like ruthlessness, that it’s as hard to imagine the post-Zuck Facebook as it once was the post-Jobs Apple.

However, shifting him would be hard – Facebook has an unusual ownership structure, which gives Zuckerberg effective control of the company. Ezra Klein asked him about this during a recent interview:

You mentioned our governance. One of the things that I feel really lucky we have is this company structure where, at the end of the day, it’s a controlled company. We are not at the whims of short-term shareholders. We can really design these products and decisions with what is going to be in the best interest of the community over time.

In other words, Zuckerberg genuinely likes the existing structure, and has no intention of giving up control. And he would have to be persuaded of the need of it before he can be removed. That could come. The PR stink around him grows, and some people remember that he once called users “dumb fucks” for sharing their data with him. There’s little evidence that his position has significantly changed since then.

However, there’s little evidence that he needs to change, from a business perspective, as people aren’t really leaving Facebook – and that includes advertisers. The behaviour of the company doesn’t seem to be shifting, either, as the company has no plans to offer the rest of the world the GDPR protections that Europe is enforcing on digital companies.

Short of massive public or shareholder pressure, regulatory intervention or an even worse business crisis, the chances of fixing Facebook seem remote. It’s a business based entirely on harvesting data – social networking is just the tool they use to do that.

Can we replace Facebook?

The other approach would be to replace Facebook’s core offer – the network – with another product, one that is not so rooted in harvesting data.

It’s worth remembering that Facebook itself was emblematic of a shift in the vary nature of the internet. Up until the mid-2000s, much of what we did with it was built on open standards. You can browse the web with any browser. You can read e-mail with any e-mail app. The tools that have emerged since have tended towards closed platforms, incentivised to grow as fast as they can, and keep the doors locked down by venture capital money, and the need for user-retention.

We’ve seen this dance before. We moved from the “closed” environments of services like AOL and Prodigy to the open internet in the mid-to-late 90s, and then a swing back towards closed services – even if they were initially mediated through the open web – from the mid-to-late 2000s. A decade on from that, is it time for that journey to reverse?

A single destination makes building up social connections more easy, but it means users are easily locked in. Even businesses find themselves only playing the Facebook game at the company’s whim, as some have discovered to their costs, as an algorithm change wipes out their marketing reach overnight.

Without strong competition, what recourse do they have?

A gathering of web technologists, calling themselves the Indie Web, have been working on rebuilding the underlying technology that drives the web in a more open way. While the technology is promising, and the principles compelling, the products are not consumer ready just yet. If this is to succeed, it needs to be as simple to use and understand as e-mail, however much underlying complexity there may be.

The New York Times had a look at a number of alternative models:

One set of Facebook alternatives might be provided by firms that are credibly privacy-protective, for which users would pay a small fee (perhaps 99 cents a month). In an age of “free” social media, paying might sound implausible — but keep in mind that payment better aligns the incentives of the platform with those of its users. The payment and social network might be bundled with other products such as the iPhone or the Mozilla or Brave browser.

The world has certainly grown more open to paying for digital content and services. The journey from rampant MP3 piracy to paying for Spotify has taken a decade, but it has happened. Maybe whatever finally erodes Facebook won’t be a for-profit company:

Another “alt-Facebook” could be a nonprofit that uses that status to signal its dedication to better practices, much as nonprofit hospitals and universities do. Wikipedia is a nonprofit, and it manages nearly as much traffic as Facebook, on a much smaller budget. An “alt-Facebook” could be started by Wikimedia, or by former Facebook employees, many of whom have congregated at the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit for those looking to change Silicon Valley’s culture.

Many would say that this feels impossible. But some of us remember the days when MySpace and Bebo seemed unassailable, and where are they now? The continued dominance of Facebook is not inevitable.

Our social networking fix is in severe need of a digital fix. What’s your preferred solution?