Facebook is the social media platform most integrated into our everyday lives. It boasts an incredible amount of active users all over the world, and exerts high levels of influence through data and access to advertisers.Now after Facebook has grown into a global tech behemoth, regulators are asking questions about it’s actions.
Is unsecured data simply the cost of doing business when it comes to users on social media platforms? The speed that big tech companies overtook our social and digital spaces far exceeds the capacity of legislators to regulate, are regulators now catching up to the out of control market? Will Facebook even maintain its remarkable growth, or will it go the way of social media platforms of the past like MySpace, laying the groundwork for the next big thing? How long will Facebook still be around?
The Challenges Facing Facebook
Social media platforms have a history of being defined by the generation of their users. From the early 2000’s first adopters of the Myspace platform to children born right at the turn of the century preferring snapchat, to youth now in their early and mid teens now having transitioned to TicToc, social media platforms have a history of captivating a specific generation while having reduced usage by other groups.
However, the titans of the social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and Twitter) appeared at first to have transcended this generation barrier with users both young and old
Some may also consider YouTube to fall into this category, though I would argue that YouTube (while containing aspects of social media like content creation, upvotes and commenting) is instead a video hosting platform where the focus for the average user is on consuming content, not building your profile and generating content of your own.
However, recent reports show that younger generations have finally started transitioning away from Facebook as the dominant platform. Now only 51 percent of US teens say they use Facebook, down from 94 percent in 2012. With a world of ever evolving tech, having a platform associated with older generations can quickly tarnish a brands reputation and inhibit growth.
Facebook still hosts 2.6 billion monthly of active accounts (and a rising number of inactive accounts and deceased users), but if the current younger generation is representative of a trend for future generations, declining user bases will represent a major concern for Facebook.
Facebook has also come under fire for their handling of personal information, even being considered one of the architects (along with Google) of how to work with third parties to allow access to personal data. The mammoth amount of data that Facebook has collected and analyzed on consumer behaviours and political habits have given businesses the information to change market trends, and political actors the ability to sway elections and change government policy.
One instance of the immense power Facebook’s data library holds being used by a third party is with the 2018 Cambridge Analytica voter profile scandal which is considered one of, if not the, largest, scandal for Facebook so far. The data firm with close connections to the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian actors used data improperly obtained from Facebook to build voter profiles. There are many parties who share the blame; from Facebook, to Cambridge Analytica, to the United States Republican Party, to Russian actors, but it’s Facebook’s data machine that allowed the events to take place.
Many jurisdictions are slowly beginning to regulate how platforms are allowed to handle the personal data of their users, in hopes that legislation may prevent further instances like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For example, in 2018, the European Union brought forth privacy new privacy laws in the form of General Data Protection Regulation that restricts how personal data is collected and handled. The regulation provides tools to ensure that web users understand and consent to the data that is collected about them .
Any regulations targeting data collection present risks to Facebook, who’s business model relies on being able to send targeted advertisements right into the phone screen of their users. The less data that Facebook is allowed to collect, use, and share, the less targeted their advertising gets, and the less money they can charge advertisers.
What Facebook is Doing Now
In the early days, one Facebook’s primary draws was it’s innovative “wall” where users can view posts from their friend group, engage through comments and likes, and add their own pictures and messages to the conversation for others to interact with as well. All of Facebook’s other functions, such as the chat feature, Facebook groups and corporate/business pages were integrated into or immediately surrounding the wall, best viewed through computer browsers.
However, with the rise of smartphones as the primary way to access Facebook, Facebook has adapted its features to break away from the former layout. Now, messenger, group management functions and the traditional Facebook wall/profile are split into separate apps with distinct functionality. While it may seem counterproductive to ask your audience to download multiple apps taking up more space on the coveted home screen, this creative decision helped shift the public perception of what Facebook really is. Now, more than ever, Facebook is a one-stop-shop for all of your network maintenance needs.
Need to organize a group chat? Messenger app has you covered. Need to sell some old belongings? The Marketplace app can help. Facebook has even entered into the dating game with their own Tinder equivalent. Notice too how these apps are simply branded as “Messenger” and “Marketplace” not “Facebook Messenger,” etc. Just as early Facebook made the creative decision to drop the “The” from “The Facebook,” it is now going one step further and dropping the “Facebook.”
Another critical way that Facebook is integrating themselves into every corner of the internet is through account verification. With more and more websites requiring accounts to access their services, Facebook offers the service of acting as an intermediary between the user and the service. As opposed to creating account information, varying your email address, remembering a new password and all of the other hassle that goes into creating an account, Facebook offers the “Log In with Facebook” option, where Facebook confirms your identity and syncs your new account information with your existing Facebook profile.
The ability to confirm identities and verify personal information is becoming more and more important in online settings as more institutions transition to offering services online. For example, banks and financial institutions have started offering identity verification services for some government departments. The more of these important services that Facebook can integrate itself with, the more Facebook will cement itself as a requirement of the online world. This integration means that even for a younger internet user who doesn’t feel the need to create a Facebook account for the social connectivity that other generations felt, will still need to create a Facebook account to access other services they may be interested in.
Though younger generations may not be adopting Facebook to the extent that the generation before them did, Facebook has achieved success with older generations, with many seniors now creating their own Facebook accounts. While a downward trend in younger users is certainly a problem for Facebook, an upward trend in older users can mitigate the short term damage while Facebook works on enticing younger users to the platform.
Technology theorists and watchdog groups (such as Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier) have long warned of the risks posed by big technology companies accessing our personal data, but consumers have still chosen to make this sacrifice to access services they are interested in. The Itunes terms of service provides an applicable case study, as few users had the time, interest or even legal understanding to sort through the prohibitively large and difficult document. Yet, time and time again, users clicked the “I have read the terms” button, potentially signing away their freedoms to a big tech company. If the bargain is attractive enough, consumers will continue to sacrifice their personal data in exchange for access to platforms.
Facebook has successfully integrated themselves into every step of a user’s online environment. Facebook saw the opportunity of acquiring more and more data through offering account verification services, marketplaces, messenger and other applications, which had the added benefit of both requiring younger users to stay invested in their Facebook accounts to access these services.
While Facebook’s personal data policies may seem questionable, Facebook’s actions have complied with the limited applicable legislation. If any part of this process is unethical by design, it would be the limited (though growing) legislative framework around how tech companies handle personal data. If we as a society believe that our data should be protected, they should legislate those requirements.
Justin Draper is a Canadian fiction and non-fiction writer who focuses on themes of politics and culture. He is currently completing his Masters degree in Communication and Technology at the University of Alberta.
Follow Justin on Twitter at @JustinDraperYEG