Facebook Birthday, Facebook old, Wechat, Weibo

Facebook is old: the Ford-T of social media just turned 15

6 minutes to read
Column
Jan Blommaert
05/02/2019

Yesterday, Facebook celebrated its fifteenth birthday. On February 4, 2004, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin put their first Facebook prototype online across the campus of Harvard University. Two years later, the new social medium became available to everyone, and Facebook started its unstoppable rise to prominence in the world of social media.

With an estimated two billion accounts, it has been the industry leader for several years now. Through a long series of acquisitions, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, potential competitors were either eliminated or incorporated, making Facebook for all practical purposes a quasi-monopoly player in the field. True, this has turned Facebook into a digital media empire with tremendous power. But the empire is getting old and frail now.

Keep Facebook free and simple

The recipe with which Facebook conquered large parts of the world was, and remains, extraordinarily straightforward. Allow (almost) anyone to make free-of-charge accounts in a matter of minutes, and create an interface which even digital semi-literates can master in a matter of hours. And added to that: keep that free and simple format stable, in such a way that old subscribers don't leave your platform and aspiring ones can join at any time.

As wise people often emphasize: when something is free for you to use, it means that you're the raw material, not the customer. Behind the free and simple interface attracting so many people, Mark Zuckerberg set up a data industry of tremendous scope and size, in which what we do on Facebook is converted into a product: predictable behavioral templates, offered to advertisers, data mining companies and, eventually, security services. It took quite a while before Facebook users became conscious of that.

Facebook's simple recipe also made it into a quasi-monopoly player in the field of big data.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 was probably the tipping point: Facebook was shown to have leaked colossal amounts of personal data, without users' consent, to a data crunching company working for the political campaign of Republican US candidates (including Trump). Prior to that, however, Edward Snowden had demonstrated that Facebook effectively collaborated with the US security services. Such revelations caused severe concerns about the company's privacy policies. Zuckerberg engaged in a long series of public apologies for the lack of prudence with respect to Facebook users' privacy, and in Europe, these concerns stimulated the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

The fact is that Facebook's free and simple recipe, maintained during fifteen years, not only propelled it to the social media quasi-monopoly mentioned earlier, with a tremendous economic impact across the globe. It also made it into a quasi-monopoly player in the field of big data. Even more, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Facebook has greatly stimulated data science and data industries. Facebook certainly did not invent the packaging of personal data into tailor-made profiles enabling new forms of marketing and surveillance; but its sheer size meant that it quickly became the most promising source for - really "big" - data research and commodification.

Facebook as digital culture

Maintaining stability for fifteen years had several additional effects. It is clear, for instance, that Facebook has had a very considerable impact on what we now call digital culture, in the sense that, as a household brand, it has played a significant role in the reordering of online-offline social and cultural life. "Liking" and "sharing" users' "updates" have become entirely normalized practices in social interaction (and entirely normalized terms in our vocabularies for talking about social life); and communicating via Facebook has been fully integrated in the everyday routines of hundreds of millions of people. 

It is Facebook's refusal to change  that enabled the hundreds of millions of users to create such enduring mass effects and turn them into constant features of everyday life.

What Facebook did - again, not alone but as the leading actor - was to reshape an online-offline public sphere in which, for instance, "public opinion", "news" and "community" (the latter composed of "Facebook friends") have acquired very different meanings. Along with Twitter (created in 2006), it has become a forum for mass opinion making, for mass political mobilization, for political propaganda and activism, for the formation of globalized micro-populations, for entirely new forms of public self-presentation and identity work, and so forth. Much of this has been documented on Diggit Magazine, so there is no need to expand on this. 

But it is good to remind ourselves of the fact that this huge impact on contemporary social and cultural life, too, is an effect of Facebook's simple recipe applied over a period of fifteen years. It is Facebook's refusal to change  that enabled the hundreds of millions of users to create such enduring mass effects and turn them into constant features of everyday life - personal as well as economic and political.

We could call this the Ford-T effect. Henry Ford's decision in the early 20th century, going for the mass production of one stable and simple car model for almost twenty years, turned automobiles into everyday commodities in the US and beyond. The cheap, easy-to-maintain and technically unsophisticated Ford-T shaped a new market, a new industry standard, a new demotic culture of individual mobility and, in fact, a new kind of capitalism. Zuckerberg has consistently used the same approach in the field of social media.

Old is good, old is bad

So it is because Facebook is old that it is so powerful. Being old is good, in Facebook's case. At the same time, its quasi-monopoly position also has negative effects: as in the case of the Ford-T, there is a point where the refusal to innovate turns market leadership against itself.

The very thing that has made Facebook great also makes it obsolete. Designed in the very early years of the 21st century and swept up in a wave of tremendous technological developments, Facebook now looks, and feels, almost medieval. This becomes clear when we compare it to social media dominating the parts of the world where Facebook is not the monopolist it is elsewhere. Think of the Russia-based VKontakte and, especially, China's WeChat

The very thing that has made Facebook great also makes it obsolete. Facebook now looks, and feels, almost medieval.

VKontakte and WeChat offer their users far more than what Facebook has to offer: there are more integrated applications and functions, offering a superior user experience while remaining (like Facebook) low-threshold interfaces. Messaging, videochats, online streaming, banking services and platform-economic functions comparable to Uber are all available on one single platform.

What people living in the Facebook empire can achieve through using a dozen or so different apps can be achieved by WeChat users with a number of quick moves within the same platform. Consequently, users can do more things and more diverse things on social media, and in terms of emerging digital culture, China and Russia are far more exciting places than Western Europe. It is not unlikely that the same applies to data mining strategies, machine learning technologies and data-driven economies. And - lest we forget - to surveillance culture, for the more integrated the data one can gather, the more precise the profiles one can manufacture out of them.

Facebook, thus, seems to have missed the boat of platform innovation. The recent plans to integrate Instagram, WhatsApp and Messager into a revamped Facebook platform shows that the company's leaders are aware of the widening gap between Facebook and its daughter apps on the one hand, and superior social media platforms developed by competitors on the other.

In terms of emerging digital culture, China and Russia are far more exciting places than Western Europe.

But here is the dilemma of the quasi-monopolist. One's dominant position in the market is dependent on the stability of the product. But market dominance also pushes others towards innovation in search of a market share - an incentive not shared by the quasi-monopolist, who, consequently, continues to place an increasingly dated product in the market.

The Ford-T of social media

Henry Ford's T-model, produced between 1908 and 1927, became "the Swiss Army knife of automobiles" and accounted for half of all automobiles sold around the world in the 1920s.  Ford, consequently, was very reluctant to take his tremendously successful T-model off the assembly lines, even while competitors such as Chevrolet had developed and marketed superior cars - offered now to the mass market for cars created single-handedly by Ford. In the end, however, he had to give in and go with the flow. 

We can expect Mark Zuckerberg to be aware of such historical examples and to draw lessons from it. Facebook has reshaped the world of social media, but there is no guarantee at all that it will remain a synonym for social media, as it was during its peak years. In addition, the repeated exposure of Facebook's business model and its impact on privacy will continue to be a serious concern for its present and potential users. Fifteen years after its inception, Facebook is old, and it is in dramatic need of rejuvenation.