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Facebook Is Built on Inequality

Internal emails released this week reveal a core dissonance between the company’s goals and its PR

Colin Horgan
Dec 6, 2018 · 5 min read
Illustration: erhui1979/Getty Images

2012 was a big year for Facebook. In April of that year, Facebook announced it would acquire Instagram. In June, it named Sheryl Sandberg to its board of directors. And in October, Facebook announced it had one billion active monthly users.

“Helping a billion people connect is amazing, humbling and by far the thing I am most proud of in my life,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote then in a public post, announcing the milestone. “I am committed to working every day to make Facebook better for you, and hopefully together we will be able to connect the rest of the world too.” In another post that day, Zuckerberg wrote that he and his colleagues at Facebook “believe that the need to open up and connect is what makes us human. It’s what brings us together. It’s what brings meaning to our lives.”

A trove of internal Facebook emails released by the U.K. Parliament on Wednesday reveals what was happening inside the company at that time. Just weeks after Facebook hit its billionth active monthly user, Zuckerberg typed out an email to colleagues with his thoughts on the data access terms Facebook might want for apps operating on the platform.

“I think we should go with full reciprocity and access to app friends for no charge. Full reciprocity means that apps are required to give any user who connects to FB a prominent option to share all of their social content within that service back…to Facebook,” Zuckerberg wrote.

He went on:

We’re trying to enable people to share everything they want, and to do it on Facebook. Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and to make that app social by having Facebook plug into it. However, that may be good for the world but it’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network.

(For the record, Facebook says the tranche of emails is “cherrypicked,” and “tells only one side of the story and omits important context.”)

In short, the reciprocity arrangement Zuckerberg was describing involved the terms Facebook sets for third-party apps built on its platform. The arrangement determines how much, and which kinds, of data Facebook requires those apps to provide in return for access to its network. In this case, apps were given access to friend lists. With data gathered through reciprocity, Facebook’s advertisers would be able to target users even better than before.

The emails reveal a core dissonance between Facebook’s marketing and how its users were leveraged in a business sense.

In another, earlier email, Zuckerberg discussed user data in a different context: how it might be obtained by another party. In an email to then-VP of product management, Sam Lessin, Zuckerberg wrote that he was skeptical about a “data leak strategic risk,” adding: “I agree there is clear risk on the advertiser side, but I haven't figured out how that connects to the rest of the platform. I think we leak info to developers, but I just can’t think if any instances where that data has leaked from developer to developer and caused a real issue for us. Do you have examples of this?”

In 2018, following the Cambridge Analytica allegations, that question now seems pretty ominous.

Arguably, it’s not controversial for Facebook to find ways to maximize its profits. These emails, however, reveal a core dissonance between the idea Facebook sought to market to its billion-plus users for years, and how those users were leveraged in a business sense.

The deal Facebook users thought they were making with the site, as Zuckerberg gushed when it reached its billion-user milestone, was a provocatively idealistic one. That, by handing over some obvious personal data to Facebook, the social site would provide, at the very least, a form of unprecedented global connection. At best, it would provide things like fulfillment and meaning. But such promises were ultimately deceiving, and not only because they usually failed to deliver. Facebook’s utopian language also implied that the arrangement users had committed to by signing up for the platform — using their personal data as entry — was not merely reciprocal, but equal. It wasn’t.

To believe there’s any kind of equal exchange in Facebook’s relationships with either its users or app developers (not to mention media companies) would be a mistake. The emails released Wednesday also suggest that Zuckerberg and his colleagues agreed to cut off Vine’s access to Facebook data. On January 24, 2013, the day Facebook rival Twitter launched Vine, Justin Osofsky wrote: “Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today.” Zuckerberg replied, “Yup, go for it.”

Over the last two years, we’ve come to grips with our deep misunderstanding of our relationship to Facebook based on its self-promotional language. As we’ve come to discover, equal partnerships are not what has helped Facebook succeed; instead, Facebook thrives on inequality. The platform is built on a fundamental imbalance of power between itself and its users.

Because, ultimately, Facebook has benefited a lot more than its users have. Strictly financially, some of those benefits are obvious. Facebook, along with Google, now controls around 50% of online advertising spending, is worth about $630 billion, and the site has made Mark Zuckerberg one of the richest people on Earth. But beyond those staggering figures, Facebook has benefited in other ways, too, not least of which is that it’s become an assumed part of life in many countries around the world. This status is important to its continued success. As a mere “platform” for “sharing,” Facebook sells itself as a neutral, even fair, player.

Its goal isn’t global connection or a more meaningful existence. Those are means to an end, which is to collect as much data as possible.

We now know that it is not. Facebook’s rapid seepage into every corner of our lives has indeed made some aspects of life better. It’s easy, for instance, to communicate with friends, join groups of like-minded people, or even shop. But at every turn, Facebook tips the scales in its favor. It hunts for more ways to gather data, create a wider network, and push for more engagement. It actively seeks to create and dominate new markets, and to exploit those that already exist. Along the way, it has undermined the fabric of communities and destabilized civil society. Its role as conduit has even, according to the UN, helped facilitate a genocide. Nevertheless, Facebook got its data all the same.

What else is there to conclude at this point, other than that Zuckerberg’s views on data reciprocity are perhaps the most accurate description of how Facebook has operated during its precipitous growth? Its goal isn’t global connection or a more meaningful existence. Those are means to an end, which is to collect as much data as possible. In other words, what’s good for the world is nice and all, but what’s nicest is what’s good for Facebook.

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