As I see it, Facebook, along with Donald Trump and Covid are the three curses of our times. Now that Trump is out, and vaccinations are inching into mass circulation, it seems fitting that we turn more focus on the curse of Facebook.
Facebook is the most existential of the three: we use Facebook more than anything else to express our hatred for Facebook. Further, while it maintains that it is not a news organization, we go to Facebook for news of Facebook and for that matter, everything else.
That reason is ironic but obvious: Facebook is where we share with our friends.
Until recently, I thought our chances of bringing Facebook down were less likely than resolving either the pandemic or the presidency. But something happened recently that gave me a small glimmer of hope that Facebook’s best day may have passed.
It started with two terse words after yet another report of a privacy gaffe in WhatsApp, the Facebook messaging subsidiary: Use Signal. It came in the form of a Tweet from Elon Musk.
Now, you may or may not care for Musk, but it seems to me that anyone who can successfully develop an emission-free car, lead the race to colonize Mars, and be proclaimed the world’s richest person has a certain level of credibility despite any flaws in likeability.
As a journalist, I am fond of gathering anecdotal information and speculating on early trends. My biggest hit was in Naked Conversations, a book I co-authored that argued social media was important to the future of business. At other times, my vision turns out to be mere hallucination as in The Fourth Transformation, where I predicted that AR headsets would soon replace phones at the center of our digital lives.
Right now, I’m thinking that Musk’s Use Signal post may be remembered as the moment that triggered the moment when the mighty walls of Facebook’s garden started crumbling.
Don’t get me wrong: Facebook is far from through, but it may be heading toward a long, slow demise. Use Signal may become the Facebook Tipping Point: a little thing that makes a big difference.
The next significant step toward Facebook’s demise may come because of Trump’s demise. You may recall that last year, the US Congress gave its first serious look at breaking up Facebook, but the Senate was dominated by Republicans at that time. Not so now: with a Biden’s presidency and a Democratic Congress, the likelihood of regulating or breaking up Facebook seems more likely to me.
More people, including those of us who usually bristle at that sort of government meddling, may feel more open to the idea. Personally, I have come to favor it. Facebook is a monopoly, and if you like to humanize corporate entities, then the social network is a sociopathic one. It denies it has anything to do with the fake news, election tampering, bullying, hate-mongering, and sundry misdemeanors.
Last year, Zuck argued to Congress that it is merely a tech provider and has zero responsibility for what people do or say on the platform. Metaphorically, he argued that social networks are more like phone companies than newspapers. No one blames phone makers and carriers for what people say on the phones, so therefore, Facebook argues, why should it be blamed for what users say on Facebook?
First of all, every company today is a tech company and no company should be allowed to cause trusting customers to be abused to benefit ad revenue. Secondly, it is obvious that Facebook is the leading distributor of news worldwide. Facebook makes its money in precisely the same way that the NY Times does: they put content in front of people’s faces. The difference is measurable in subscribers. While the Times reaches 5 million people, Facebook reaches 3.5 billion, a number equivalent to about 40 percent of the world’s population—higher if you deduct those too young, too old, or too impoverished to use connected devices.
In Silicon Valley, long a bastion of neo libertarianism, technologists argue that breaking up Facebook will be a technical nightmare. I would argue that the nightmare already exists and that breaking it up is as important to public well-being as are the defeat of Trump and eventually the pandemic
With this in mind, I’ve started looking at other social platforms, speculating on which platform would benefit themselves and their users the most. I began like Diogenes, the guy who took a lantern and went searching for an honest person. In my figurative journey though, I came back without success and needing a brighter lantern.
Almost immediately, I eliminated Twitter, Linked-In, Reddit, and other well-established social platforms. I figured if they were going to topple Facebook, they would already have done it. Twitter has its own problems: By rightfully banning Trump, they have cost themselves their star attraction and will likely lose millions of subscribers. I commend them for choosing to do what is right, but I think they will spend the next year figuring out how they should once again reinvent themselves.
Having eliminated the biggest players, I looked at social platforms likely to benefit by weakening Facebook but also that the huge Trump base will self-organize by landing mostly on an alt right social network such as Parler.
But before I could write about how much I disliked Parler, Amazon AWS kicked it out of its hosting service where it landed on its digital butt. It appears to be dead now, but unfortunately, other low riders are queueing up to replace it.
Minds.com makes itself sound like a great First Amendment champion while letting users pay with cryptocurrency to avoid paying taxes. Likewise, MeWe, another alt right darling has captured the hearts of many former Parler fans. Then there’s Clouthub, which goes a step lower by letting users post lies, fake news, filth, or incite violence while remaining anonymous.
I call this group the Fringe Niche. They appeal mostly to people I have no desire to interact with, such as those who believe that Trump won the last election or that injecting Clorox will kill Covid pathogens. I defend the rights of such people to be as ignorant as they please, but I want to avoid them when I can.
Where will we go when Facebook’s walls come tumbling down? What about a social platform for the rest of us after Facebook shuts down and we all walk away?
Will we go back to communicating by email or perhaps two tomato cans tied together by string?
While I have no clear answer, I did see a few bright rays of hope. before my lantern light died out.
The Dream Platform
As I often do in my writing, I turned to my Facebook friends about possible Facebook replacement sites. Chris Kieff, one of those close personal friends who I’ve never actually met, suggested I check out WT.Social. I was impressed by its user promises:
“Welcome to a place where advertisers don’t call the shots; where your data isn’t packaged up and sold, where you—not algorhithms—decide what you see, where you can directly edit misleading content; where bad actors are kicked out and kept out …”
I find myself cheering for WT.Social. I like its look and feel which has aspects of Facebook as well as Wikipedia, which makes sense since it was founded by a group that includes Jimmy Wales.
But my ambitions for the platform apparently exceed those of the founder. Wales says he hopes to attract 50 million users. That’s a number smaller than the state of California. Not bad, but Facebook subscribers represent a group about three times larger than all of China.
At this point, my lantern started flickering, but before it went out, I managed to find a couple more social networks worthy of mention.
I liked Ello, which is popular among artists and in the gay community, and also Mastodon, an open-source platform that resembles Twitter, and promises to put social networking into the hands of us users. But it depends on charitable donations to support itself and its content providers. I think Tip Jars are a good idea for musicians who plan to travel home by bus. If they hope to drive to engagements in a new Tesla, they need to find higher paid gigs.
I found fewer subscription-based social networks than I had expected. The most noteworthy is the Well.com, which in 1985 became the first online community and was free. Now it charges a steep $15 monthly and has a dated look-and-feel in my view. I spent $15 for a month and found I had stopped viewing it after about five visits. I cancelled my subscription.
Most subscription-based services charge around $1 monthly and I like the idea of a low-cost, high volume subscription modes such as Patreon, a site for creatives and content producers who get to declare their own subscription fees, and then there’s Substack, which allows newsletter authors to raise subscription fees in the same way. I just might try that for ISTM: If I make $1, I’ll be ahead of the game.
The Bigness Handicap
Aristotle once observed that all things must have a beginning, a middle and an end. He was talking about poetry, but it seems to me to be equally true for businesses such as IBM, HP, Standard Oil, Sears, JC Penny, Standard Oil, or the Dutch West Indies Company. All began as small and unnoteworthy, only to become so large that they were considered to be too big to fail until each of them either failed or became irrelevant. Size is important to reaching critical mass, but that same critical mass can serve as a sea anchor slowing down growth and innovation.
Facebook is following a similar trajectory in my view. To become the Godzilla of social networks it has amassed great size, wealth, market position, and userbase. Along the way it has managed to make itself the most unliked company since Enron’s smart guys started screwing with California’s electric grid for their personal profit.
Could Elon Musk’s, Use Signal be someday regarded as the tipping point that toppled Facebook? Maybe.
I hope so.
My Advice to Challengers
I wish at this point, I could put a friendly hand on your shoulder and list The Six Steps to Demolishing Facebook, as some headline somewhere will inevitably shout at some point in the near future: but I cannot. I can only tell you some of the attributes I think would be useful if you are planning to start the company that will eventually make Facebook fail or become irrelevant.
- Champion your users. The concept that became social was the Internet empowered users and customers to take charge. Instead of companies talking at us, they would humbly ask us. You can’t go back 25 years to when that ideal-setting book came out, but you can treat your reader as your customer—even when your revenue comes from advertisers. If you treat them with respect and generosity, they will become your evangelists. It remains the most efficient way to start from nothing and end with hundreds of millions of users or more.
- Start Simple and Focused. Most successful tech companies started by focusing on one product or technology: Microsoft, did it with operating systems and for Apple it was simple but elegant hardware; for Google it was Search. Find one aspect of social networks where you are the best that there is. Market your claim aggressively. Once you own that niche, start moving into other niches even more aggressively.
- Call Facebook Out. I looked at over 20 companies in researching this article. Each of them obviously competes with Facebook yet not one mentions them by name. I would argue that you should tell everyone—including Facebook that you intend to put a sharp stick into Facebook’s eye and then twist it. Every time Facebook does something unsavory; you should be fast to call it to people’s .attention and explain why you treat users and their data with greater respect.
- Hybrid & Lethal. Conventional wisdom says that if you want to make money with a social platform, then your revenue model needs to be ad-based or subscription-based. I think it is possible to be both because users will appreciate the choices. This is a user championship issue and it may cost you some revenue in early phases. But in the end, the kinder you are to customers, the more loyal they remain to you. I call this strategy Lethal Generosity, and I wrote a book about it.
- Think Young. You will be a lot better off for a lot longer period of time if you build a social network that appeals to my grandkids rather than me. If you are taking on Facebook, plan for a battle that could last decades. Focus on young users in your marketing and let Facebook’s userbase continue to age. It puts time on your side and cuts off Facebook’s future.
- Be Topical. Facebook is very good at letting us follow people but not as good at letting me follow topics. Yet we have people we follow because we like anything they have to say. However, there are probably a large number of topics that you want to follow regardless of who is posting there. This is hard to do on Facebook and therein lies a competitive advantage for an aggressive challenger.
- Admit you’re a Media Company & Act like One. To me, any social platform trying to deny they are a media company has a credibility problem. If you are going to be a media company then you need to make persistent efforts to keep content accurate, debates civil, and sources transparent. This is hard, but Hell, if you are going after Facebook, don’t expect any it to be easy.
If any of you have an idea of how you can help topple Facebook? Let me know. I’d love to help you if I can, or at the very least, write about you in a future ISTM.