“The future is private,” said Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook’s roadmap, after conceding “we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly.” But it’s easy to see why he would genuinely want that … now. Facebook’s seemingly endless series of privacy debacles have been disastrous for the company’s reputation.
Not its revenue, mind you; but revenue is famously a lagging indicator in the tech industry. Companies which, like Facebook, effectively become utilities, tend to maximize their income just as their use becomes ubiquitous — not because people especially like them any more, but because there seems to be no better alternative. (See also: Craigslist . PayPal . An obscure little company called MySpace which you may have heard of once.)
But “the future is private,” the vision of Facebook as a platform for groups and individuals sharing end-to-end-encrypted messages, the content of which it cannot be criticized for because it is literally incapable of knowing, sounds like a pretty gargantuan shift in business model, too. “Senator, we sell ads,” is another famous Zuckerberg quote. Won’t end-to-end encryption, and the de-emphasis of the continuously scrollable News Feed in favor of more discrete communications, strip Facebook of both valuable ad space and valuable ad-targeting information?
Probably. But it’s already painfully clear that Facebook wants to do far more than just sell ads against News Feed attention to make money. That got them where they are, but it has its limits, and of late, it’s also attracted a volcano of furious attention, and a fake-news firestorm. So don’t look where their puck is; look where it’s going. Look at Facebook Marketplace; look at Facebook’s cryptocurrency plans; look at their purchase of WhatsApp and how Facebook Messenger was broken out into its own app.
It seems clear that what Facebook really wants next is for Messenger to become WeChat for the rest of the world. An impregnable walled garden, used for business communications as well as personal. One which dominates not just messaging but commerce. A platform capable of transcending — and replacing — credit cards.
That would be enormously lucrative. That would also immensely reduce public and regulatory scrutiny and outrage: when outrages and atrocities are plotted and performed over Messenger, as they inevitably will be, Facebook will point out, quite correctly, that it is mathematically impossible for them to monitor and censor those messages, and that by keeping it mathematically impossible they are preserving their users’ privacy.
Does that sound hypocritical? What a narrow, short-sighted view. The irony is that it’s now entirely possible to envision a thriving future for Facebook which does not really include — well — Facebook. One in which Instagram is the king of all social media, while Messenger/WhatsApp rule messaging, occupy the half-trillion dollar international-remittances space, and also take basis points from millions of daily transactions performed on them …
…while what we used to know as “Facebook,” that once-famous app and web site, languishes as a neglected relic, used by a diminishing and increasingly middle-aged audience for event planning and sporadic life updates, yet another zombie social medium like LiveJournal and MySpace and so many others before. But one which birthed new, stronger, more evolved, corporate titans before it withered away: online gardens not merely “walled” but “domed like Wakanda,” more resistant to regulation, less prone to unpleasant emergent properties and summons to testify to the Senate. Love or hate this idea, you have to concede that it would be, if it succeeded, the mother of all pivots.