After more than a year of scandal, Facebook wants a do-over.
The company has announced sweeping changes to overhaul the social media juggernaut. The watch word, says CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is privacy.
However, critics say the changes will require a completely new business model for the company, and Zuckerberg doesn’t have a base of strong consumer trust to build upon. If the company is successful in making the changes, it could upend how brand managers, marketers and PR pros interact online.
Mr. Zuckerberg, who runs Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, on Wednesday expressed his intentions to change the essential nature of social media. Instead of encouraging public posts, he said he would focus on private and encrypted communications, in which users message mostly smaller groups of people they know. Unlike publicly shared posts that are kept as users’ permanent records, the communications could also be deleted after a certain period of time.
He said Facebook would achieve the shift partly by integrating Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger so that users worldwide could easily message one another across the networks. In effect, he said, Facebook would change from being a digital town square to creating a type of “digital living room,” where people could expect their discussions to be intimate, ephemeral and secure from outsiders.
“We’re building a foundation for social communication aligned with the direction people increasingly care about: messaging each other privately,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in an interview on Wednesday. In a blog post, he added that as he thought about the future of the internet, “I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.”
The changes seem to mirror consumers’ wishes and current online behavior.
While Zuckerberg years ago spoke eagerly about the possibility of exponential growth in public sharing, the sharing of personal updates on Facebook has waned, and no significant new social networks have launched to rival Facebook’s dominance as the No. 1 network. Outside the United States, services such as WeChat and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp have seen explosive growth by focusing on messaging.
Some speculated that the announcement was an attempt to get ahead of antitrust criticism.
Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist of the Federal Trade Commission, said the timing of the announcement could be a way to get ahead of any antitrust objections.
Other changes would address what Zuckerberg called the “permanence problem.” Facebook and Instagram already offer the ability to post images and video that disappear after 24 hours, an idea made popular by Snapchat, and Zuckerberg said he’s interested in extending the concept.
“People want to know that what they share won’t come back to hurt them later, and reducing the length of time their information is stored and accessible will help,” he said.
Skeptics remain unmoved
Critics took Zuckerberg’s announcement with a grain (or a boulder) of salt.
Reactions to Zuckerberg’s announcement were swift and skeptical. Privacy advocates said Zuckerberg needs to go beyond touting encryption to provide concrete information about whether less data will be collected and used for Facebook’s profits. “Why does it always sound like we are witnessing a digital version of Groundhog Day when Facebook yet again promises — when it’s in a crisis — that it will do better,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit privacy advocacy group in Washington. “Will it actually bring a change to how Facebook continually gathers data on its users in order to drive big profits?”
The first question people are asking is whether Zuckerberg means what he says, and there are plenty of doubters. (For starters: Walt Mossberg; Om Malik; Sam Biddle; and Facebook investors, who hardly moved the stock price today.) John Herrman noted that Zuckerberg was against privacy before he was for it, and wondered if the CEO ought not to have provided a bit more detail on the nature of his recent religious conversion.
Then there’s the fact that Facebook’s privacy promises have historically been broken. Anonymous login, a much ballyhooed privacy feature announced in 2014 at F8, never shipped. And we’re all still waiting on a “clear history” button announced last May.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the company’s paucity of consumer trust.
The Washington Post continued:
Public trust in Facebook is at record lows, according to studies, the result of crushing privacy controversies last year as well as the misuse of user data that extends back more than a decade. In a reputation score of 100 highly visible public companies, Facebook last year dropped from 51st to 94th, according to a Harris Poll published Wednesday in conjunction with the news organization Axios. In a Pew Research Center study from September, a quarter of the Facebook users polled said they deleted the app from their smartphones last year, and more than half said they adjusted their privacy settings.
Zuckerberg acknowledged the trust deficit in his post. “I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing,” he wrote. “But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.”
Facebook of the future
Zuckerberg tried to present a nuanced vision for how privacy could become an intrinsic part of Facebook’s global services.
He wrote in his blog post:
End-to-end encryption is an important tool in developing a privacy-focused social network. Encryption is decentralizing — it limits services like ours from seeing the content flowing through them and makes it much harder for anyone else to access your information. This is why encryption is an increasingly important part of our online lives, from banking to healthcare services. It’s also why we built end-to-end encryption into WhatsApp after we acquired it.
In the last year, I’ve spoken with dissidents who’ve told me encryption is the reason they are free, or even alive. Governments often make unlawful demands for data, and while we push back and fight these requests in court, there’s always a risk we’ll lose a case — and if the information isn’t encrypted we’d either have to turn over the data or risk our employees being arrested if we failed to comply. This may seem extreme, but we’ve had a case where one of our employees was actually jailed for not providing access to someone’s private information even though we couldn’t access it since it was encrypted.
At the same time, there are real safety concerns to address before we can implement end-to-end encryption across all of our messaging services. Encryption is a powerful tool for privacy, but that includes the privacy of people doing bad things. When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion. We have a responsibility to work with law enforcement and to help prevent these wherever we can. We are working to improve our ability to identify and stop bad actors across our apps by detecting patterns of activity or through other means, even when we can’t see the content of the messages, and we will continue to invest in this work. But we face an inherent tradeoff because we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.
Experts say the changes are monumental for the social media company, which has built an advertising empire.
End-to-end encryption — along with other plans to give people more control over their data such as a clear history tool and disappearing posts — will make it harder for Facebook to gather the user information on which its business model relies. The company made $55.8 billion in revenue in 2018, the bulk of which came from advertising.
“He is coming down pretty hard on putting data outside of Facebook’s reach for advertising,” said former Facebook security boss Alex Stamos. Google Ventures general partner M. G. Siegler put it this way: “This is a tectonic shift. Either advertising has to be reimagined again, or weaned off of.”
Zuckerberg says Facebook is ready for that.
Business Insider continued:
In an interview with Wired about his blog, the Facebook founder said growth will be “harder” to come by for his new-look company. “Certainly, ad targeting can benefit from having access to as much content or signal as possible,” he said.
But Zuckerberg answered those potential investor jitters in two ways. Firstly, he said Facebook isn’t “really using the content of messages to target ads” at the moment anyway, so encrypting messages isn’t going to be a big loss.
Communications tactics set to change
For social media managers and other communicators, the potential changes could revolutionize how organizations operate on the platform. Publishers and brand managers have already seen a drastic drop in their organic reach for content they publish.
Advertisers might be the next in line to feel the squeeze.
The News Feed becomes a legacy product. Since its introduction, the endless scroll of updates from your friends has been the core of Facebook — synonymous with the experience of using the app itself. Zuckerberg just told the world that he expects it to slowly fade away — not without its uses, but no longer the center of all social media. This could have implications that extend well beyond Facebook proper — to Instagram, for example, and to Twitter.
Facebook has to find a new business model. The News Feed is more than just Facebook’s core consumer product — it’s the company’s core business unit. The News Feed is, along with Google’s AdWords, the most lucrative advertising product ever built. A world in which it withers away is one in which Facebook has to first replace, then exceed the revenues it currently generates from advertising. It will be a Herculean task.
That new business model will probably be commerce. Commerce and payments all the rage inside Facebook these days. On the commerce side, Instagram is spinning up a standalone shopping app. On the payments front, David Marcus’ team is developing a cryptocurrency. In his blog post, Zuckerberg says a more private suite of Facebook services will give rise to “businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.”
The model for the future of Facebook might look like Tencent’s WeChat, which uses its messaging platform as an internet portal to friends as well as shops and services.
In many ways, Mr. Zuckerberg is now emulating a strategy popularized by Tencent, the Chinese internet company that makes the messaging app WeChat. WeChat has become the de facto portal to the rest of the internet for Chinese citizens because through the app, users can perform a multitude of tasks, like pay for items, communicate with friends and order takeout.
“Facebook is focused on mobile and messaging as the key conduit for people to communicate online, and thereby to communicate with Facebook,” said Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy and security researcher who was a former chief technologist at the F.T.C. “The chat app essentially becomes your browser.”
What tactics do you think will work for the revised Facebook, PR Daily readers?