Facebook’s not so good year just got a little worse. Amid pressure to integrate Instagram further into Facebook, Instagram’s founders — Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — have quit the company they founded eight years ago and sold to Facebook for close to a billion dollars, about six years back. Before this, the company was entangled in the much reported Cambridge Analytica scandal, the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the dissemination of fake news on WhatsApp.
Founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook has grown rapidly with the motto of ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ to a user base of over 2 billion in 2018. The company has been ruthless in doing what it takes to grow at all costs. From acquiring potential rivals such as Instagram and WhatsApp to shamelessly cloning features of services like Snapchat which refused to kiss the proverbial ring, Facebook has built a reputation as a company which is willing to go to any length to protect their turf. This pursuit of growth is finally starting to see its negative side.
As Facebook has started to reach peak monetisation on its service — the company is running out of space to run ads on its flagship app — it is starting to look at new avenues to put ads in front of users. It recently launched Facebook Watch, a TV like streaming service where it has paid content creators to produce content for the platform, Insta TV, expanded the story format from Instagram to WhatsApp and Facebook, and earlier heavily promoted Facebook Live in order to capture the live streaming market. And all the ads are taking a toll. With over 2 billion users, there are not too many more people left in the world to get on to the service. It already feels like everybody and their grandmother is a Facebook user. In fact, this is one of the reasons that younger users are starting to leave the platform for Instagram (also owned by Facebook).
Pew Research recently found that whopping 44 percent of US users between ages 18 to 29 say they’ve deleted the app from their phone in the last year (this is down to 26 percent across age groups). Given that users are leaving Facebook in favour of Instagram, and not some other service, Facebook is not too unhappy with the situation it finds itself in. Before it bought the company in 2012, it felt threatened by the upstart who could threaten its very existence. Facebook did not want to leave things to chance and prepared itself for this very day. With one billion users, Instagram has only half the users of Facebook, and lots of headroom to grow. In a sense, Instagram is being groomed as the next Facebook. However, this is not the threat that has Facebook cowering in fear.
This is the real challenge for the company which decided to put growth before all else. In its quest to ingrain itself further and further into the lives of its users, it did not use the kinds of checks and balances that in hindsight, it should have. It allowed its platform to be used by Russian hackers to influence the 2016 US Presidential elections without catching on quick enough. The platform itself has become a breeding ground for fake news, with malicious actors gaming their algorithm which prioritises alarmist content. Around the world, the nature of the problem takes local hues. It’s grown in countries where it did not have local teams to reign in such fake news and calls to violence. In Myanmar, for instance, years of abuse and hate speech spread on the platform have managed to go unchecked, leading to large swathes of the populace remaining misinformed and turning on the Rohingya Muslim minority community of the country. In Sri Lanka, Facebook’s slow response to quell hate speech on its platforms (including WhatsApp) led to mass communal violence. As a result, the country was forced to temporarily ban the services till tempers cooled down.
Facebook claims that a lot of these issues spread faster since it is not well enough equipped with local language understanding to be able to take down posts before they go viral. Critics argue that the company with over US$ 40 billion in revenues in 2017 has more than ample resources to build these teams faster and locally if they had the will for it. Many of these problems stem back to Facebook’s early philosophy highlighted at the start of this article — ‘Move Fast and Break Things’.
The Nightmare Continues
As it tries to integrate the companies it acquired more and more into the parent, Facebook has seen pushback from unlikely sources — the founders of those very companies. Earlier this year, WhatsApp Founder, Jan Koum quit the company following his co-founder, Brian Acton, who departed a few months prior. The two clashed with Facebook Founder and Chairman, Mark Zuckerberg over privacy issues and the decision of whether or not to allow advertising on the platform. On the day of this writing, Instagram co-founders, also resigned having waged a losing battle to the Facebook chairman over similar issues. In December 2017, a former Facebook vice president, Chamath Palihapitiya said, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,”
This begs the question — if those inside the company question its very existence, how much longer before the rest of the world does? If Facebook wants to regain the trust of its users, it will have to answer these tough questions. And in a compelling manner.