A potential tipping point: Part 2 of “Facebook is Fucked”

If you want to read from the beginning of the series, check out Closing the barn door after the elections were stolen

Back in 2010, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook were sending user IDs to dozens of advertising companies to make it easy for them to track users. Interest soared in alternatives — like Diaspora, whose fortunately-timed Kickstarter campaign raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was a lot of coverage for Quit Facebook Day and other campaigns to get people to leave Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the “accidental” misbehavior, said that Facebook had learned that people actually do care about privacy, and promised to make the privacy settings easier.

Hey wait a second, I’m seeing a pattern here!

Facebook got away relatively unscathed then (other than an FTC settlement that may well come back to bite them). Diaspora didn’t take off; some people quit, but it didn’t really affect their growth; Google+, which could have leveraged people’s mistrust to take a chunk of market share, crashed and burned due to the badly-thought-out “real names policy” policy and ensuing #nymwars.

Similarly, Facebook’s also emerged relatively unscathed from all the other brouhahas about their exploitative and unethical business practices — Beacon in 2008, unilaterally changing their terms of use in 2009, the revelations that they’ve experimented on their users, their own “real names” fiasco in 2014 … I happened to sit next to a Facebook engineer on an airplane last week, and he commented that ever since the News Feed got introduced in 2006, they’ve had a long history of succeeding by (basically) not making any real changes but just saying soothing things until the problem goes away. Which is clearly what they’re trying to do here.

I can see why they think they’ll get away with it again — make their hard-to-use privacy controls a bit easier to find, run some ads apologizing, view any fines they pay as the cost of doing business, and continue on with business as usual. It’s worked for them in the past. And as @Shaft said on Twitter, it’s going to be very difficult for people to give up the mental feedback loops that Facebook has reinforced for so many years. And even though more and more people are analogizing their interaction with Facebook to an abusive relationship, it also provides a lot of value in ways that aren’t easy to replace yet.*

But then again, there are some key differences this time.

For one thing, the stakes are a lot higher with this current firestorm then they’ve been in the past. “Facebook shared user IDs with advertisers to enable tracking” is a significant privacy violation, but kind of abstract. “Facebook helped an unethical company get access to information, minimized the problems when it first came out three years ago, and then worked with the Trump campaign to help them win the election” is a much much bigger deal.

And it’s playing even worse internationally, where the combination of an exploitative American company that’s willing and able to influence elections and violate users privacy with the Trump administration’s giving the finger to allies and saber-rattling on trade means Facebook doesn’t have a lot of friends.

So Facebook’s going to be facing strong action from regulators, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if groups start to put pressure on Facebook advertisers as well. And just as importantly, unlike past firestorms that didn’t last very long, there’s very likely to stay in the headlines for quite a while. Not only will that make it harder for Facebook to retain and hire a lot of top talent, it’ll be a continual reminder to everybody of Facebook’s untrustworthiness and exploitative business practices.

The Fediverse — screenshot of fediverse.party

And while there aren’t (yet) any full-fledged replacements for Facebook’s functionality that can fill the role as “a place where you can communicate with most people even including your relatives and former co-workers you don’t really like”**, there are an increasing number of alternatives that are surprisingly usable for a bunch of friends who want to stay in touch, sharing and discussing news, and messaging. For example:

  • Mastodon, “like Twitter without Nazis”, is an open-source project that has hundreds of different instances you can sign up for — or, if you’ve got some sysadmin skills, you can host your own instance. I have several accounts there and have met some great people — including Creatrix Tiara, who has an excellent Mastodon 101 on Autostraddle. Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko ’s #DeleteFacebook has more. Mastdon’s part of the Fediverse , which also includes Diaspora (still around!), Aardwolf, Hubzilla, Friendica, postActiv, and a handful of others.
  • Dreamwidth is in some ways the anti-Facebook: a truly great (and extremely diversity-friendly) journaling and community platform with strong ethical principles and a focus on privacy, pseudonymity, and accessibility. Dreamwidth founder Denise Paolucci’s News (and Welcome!), from 2017, talks about their history.
  • ello, “the creators community”, has several hundred thousand users and a striking visual design that some people really love. Sarah Buhr’s Ello again… in TechCrunch is a good overview, and founder Todd Berger’s recent interview in Vox adds some current perspectives.
  • Mighty Networks: Remember ning, a platform that made it easy to build your own social network? Their CEO Gina Bianchini has now created Mighty Networks, and discusses it in Don’t just #deletefacebook. Let’s build something better and If you haven’t moved your customer community off Facebook, what are you waiting for? I’ve only just started playing with it, but it seems like it could be an excellent solution for a bunch of friends and/or family who just want their own private place to hang out.
  • MeWe is an ad-free, privacy-friendly, full-functionality social network that’s been around for a while and now has millions of users. Founder Mark Weinstein describes it as “the anti-Facebook, a super platform with all the features people love and no BS”, and it’s one of the few social networks that’s adopted a Bill of Rights.*** They’ve just introduced MeWePRO, which (like Mighty Networks) lets you create your own social network — and is free for non-profits.

There are lots of other options as well. If you’re a blogger, check out Indieweb. Louise MatsakisThe Best Alternative For Every Facebook Feature in Wired, Adarsh Verma’s 8 Best Facebook Alternatives With Focus On Privacy For 2018 on Fossbytes, and Jake Anderson’s blockchain-focused 10 Social Media Networks to Use Instead of Facebook all have interesting suggestions.Looking out a little farther, better.place is doing some intriguing things. Invitation-only Amplify’ed is still in beta, and the one I’m most excited about. If you’re sick of Facebook, check ’em out — and if there’s some place I didn’t list where you’re having a good experience, please let me know!

Of course, none of these have the broad base of people that Facebook does today, let alone all the functionality; so for most people, they’re not a full replacement. As Jillian C. York points out, walking away from Facebook is a privilege.

Still, even if relatively few people actually #DeleteFacebook at this point, as more people start spending more of their time elsewhere, powerful — and synergistic — feedback loops will start to kick in.

  • Facebook’s engagement numbers (which started dipping late last year) are likely to continue to decrease; which makes them less valuable for advertisers
  • The more people experience what it’s like to be in an environment that’s not creepy, exploitative, and abusive … the more they’ll want to spend more time elsewhere, and less on Facebook. As AnthroPunk, Ph.D. points out, this includes people spending more time in their offline communities, providing benefits to them as well as their neighbors, as well as potentially relocating to or creating other new online communities. Naomi Hattaway’s description of relocating the I Am A Triangle group from Facebook to Mighty Networks is a good example.
  • Increased popularity of alternatives leads to more funding for startups — and more people involved in open-source projects, so the alternatives will steadily improve. There are plenty of things that Facebook isn’t really all that good at**** and there’s plenty of room to do better.

Put all these factors together, and we might very well be at a tipping point. Too bad for Facebook and its investors. Good news for everybody else!

* I’m still on Facebook, for example, because it’s a great place for networking in groups like TechInclusion, a way to stay in touch with people I know from high school and college, and a useful (albeit challenging!) place for some kinds of activism like the Shahid for Change campaign. Jessica Guynn’s Delete Facebook? It’s a lot more complicated than that in USA Today and Jillian C. York’s What #DeleteFacebook tech bros don’t get go into more detail on why leaving Facebook now isn’t the best option for a lot of people.

Shameless plug: here’s why I’m supporting Shahid Buttar’s congressional campaign.

** if any of my relatives happen to see this: of course I’m not talking about you! And ditto for my former co-workers, unless you’re one of the guys who harassed my friends and colleagues, or I always used to get in your face about racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ+, or ablist language, or you’re now an alt-righter … in which case I am talking about you.

*** Earlier, Diaspora adopted the Computers Freedom and Privacy Social Networks Bill of Rights. Mike Swift describes the creation of the CFP Bill of Rights back in 2010, right after a Facebook firestorm, when Dorothy Glancy, Sigurd Meldal, and I co-chaired the conference.

**** For example, my Open Source Bridge presentation Grassroots Activism is Hard. Can Open Source Help? talks about the opportunitise for an activism-focused alternative. Stay tuned for more :)