Business Unusual

Facebook is planning some big changes

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook on 6 March to explain his vision for the future of Facebook. Before we look at that, it may be useful to do a quick recap of how we got here.

It was founded in 2004 but was only made available to everyone in 2006. In the 13 years since then, a lot has happened. Today Facebook is the largest social media network, the largest photo-sharing service and the largest messaging service.

The planet has about 7.4 billion people, and more than half are online. Facebook has over 2.2 billion users. It does not operate in China at all which has almost 800 million internet users. In effect, Facebook users make up 75% of all available internet users.

Given that most of the world’s users are on mobile; then the start date for its incredible growth is 2007 when it launched its mobile version on 10 January. Steve Jobs launched the iPhone the day before.

To achieve that growth Facebook was adding an average of 15 million new users every month for 12 years. That is the equivalent of adding every South African to the platform in under four months. It often considered its users like a country which would make it the most populous nation.

I can’t overstate just how successful the company has been in not only creating a massive user base but listing as the third largest IPO in history ($16 billion) and being a profitable business with revenues of over $50 billion. Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp all have over a billion users that make use of their platforms every month.

But - and it is a big but - all is not well inside the 30 000-employee company. It has had numerous failures ensuring users data remained private. It first denied then acknowledged how much and how easy it was for misinformation to be shared and paid to be shared on their platforms. While Facebook may have provided the tools to organise the Arab Spring, it had the same ability to arrange xenophobic clashes in Bangladesh and Myanmar, and voter meddling in the US, the UK and attempts in multiple other countries. It has enabled cyberbully, revenge porn and the spread of terror messages.

The first comment posted to my wall when I joined in 2007. It appears my friend knew something the rest of us would only come to know much later.

It was not intentional, but Facebook relied on a US law to absolve it from legal challenges provided it was not seen as a publisher but rather just a platform. But the mistake was believing their very effective recommendation system that organised a user feed of information ensured the most engaging posts were more widely shared. Those same posts were often the most damaging too.

In the end, Facebook had to acknowledge that it is much more like a publisher than a platform and attempted to get fact-checkers to remove or at least label false news stories. It outsourced thousands of jobs for moderators to check flagged posts for breaking its rules.

It has reduced the issue, but when 1.5 billion are using the platform each day the task of managing all the content is almost impossible.

Which brings us to March 2019. The data situation is too big a task to handle, governments are seriously looking to increase regulation including breaking the company up and, while revenues are still good, advertisers and users may not be willing to accept the status quo.

Facebook is looking to make three very big shifts.

A move to smaller groups and more private posting

Rather than connecting the world, which was the ambitious and idealistic goal, in the beginning, they are looking to keep things from being shared too widely and limiting how many people you may be able to connect with.

Encrypt everything

WhatsApp leads the way in ensuring that only the sender and receiver would be able to read messages, even while the rest of Facebook wanted to mine the information to obtain more information about user behaviour to target ads and supercharge the news feed. Now they appear to be wanting to limit what they know (so they can’t be accused of not acting on damaging information and avoiding being drawn into legal challenges with governments as recently happened in Brazil). The undertaking is to look out for illegal activity, but that is quite difficult when over a billion people are sending information every day, and you can’t see what it is.

Make it go away

Facebook wanted to be your digital journal storing all your pictures, posts, comments, likes and allowing your friends to see it all and maybe even share it with their friends. Now as those that did that notice embarrassing, offensive and damaging content posted in the past can come back to scupper a new job, a relationship or a friendship. Now more of your messages, videos and photos will be posted in the moment, shared only with those close to you and then deleted or just made visible to you. Make most of the content go away, and most of the problems should follow.

These are the fundamental changes, but others are efforts that appear to make the products of Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram all run from one platform. That would make using one and connecting with someone on a different platform easier, and it would simplify advertisers wanting to reach users across the board. But it would also make an effort to break the company up more difficult.

A closed encrypted system will also make payments easier, and Facebook is experimenting with how to expand the option to pay or share funds across the platform. One area might be allowing users working outside their home countries to more easily send money home. It is a big industry and not one that makes it easy or cheap for those wanting to use it.

A shift to user transactions and taking just a small part of a transaction may allow Facebook to reduce the need for advertisers to use ads only. If you can buy things on the platform; why not focus on selling them? It already has good success with Instagram sales, and Facebook second-hand groups are big, popular and likely lucrative.

If it sounds a little familiar, then those that have used Tencent’s WeChat will recognise many similar options. Facebook is unlikely to get access or much traction in China and WeChat has not been that successful outside of China. In modelling Facebook on Tencent, it may become even more successful than it is now.

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