In the 18th Century, a cavalry officer by the name of Philip Astley set up an amphitheatre to display horse riding tricks. This was the genesis of the modern circus. The horses used to be made to perform various tricks and amuse the attendees. Some horses could perform only one trick and came to be called One Trick Ponies.
Victor Hugo famously said, “No force on Earth can stop an idea whose time had come”. The corollary if I may offer – No force on Earth can save an idea whose time is gone.
The first company to make a real attempt at building a social network was called theglobe.com. They even IPO’d during the dot-com bubble. They disappeared just as soon as they came to be. Many social networks came after them, but none of them crossed the threshold of 200 Million users.
Had Steve Jobs not walked out on stage in January 2007, and announced the iPhone, god alone knows what atrocious internet we would have been left consuming on our mobile devices. Also had 3G not been launched in October 2007, there would have not much use for all the power that an iPhone packed within it.
It was these two factors that saved a company that was plateauing in 2008 – Facebook. Facebook was born at a time when fortuitously for them mobile internet and smartphones happened to happen at the same time.
Facebook was rather late to jump on the mobile bandwagon. Believe it or not, it was not until August 2011 that the company launched its iOS app. Had they delayed it by one more year, the company would have perished and we would not have had any manipulated elections. But that is not how history played out.
Even before the IPO, the leadership within the organisation knew that Facebook was a One Trick Pony. Just weeks before the IPO, the company closed its acquisition of Instagram for a Billion dollars. While text statuses were fine, Facebook was not really great at handling photos. Instagram had a better product and the writing was on the wall. Sequoia, one of the VC funds that had invested in Facebook was making a USD 250 Million bet on Instagram. When your investors start hedging their bets, you have to be worried. When your biggest investor is hedging their bets, the writing is on the wall.
After the resounding failure of Facebook Messenger, the company bought WhatsApp. In fact, apart from Facebook, the site, the company has been a massive photocopying machine and an incredibly bad one at that. Facebook Gift launched early on in the life of the company was a huge failure. They tried to copy Gmail and launched Facebook Mail with ‘@facebook.com’ ID and that failed as well. Facebook Places was a rip-off of FourSquare; failed. They also launched Poke and Facebook Camera, which was launched after the Instagram acquisition as a competitor and both failed. They even launched a Facebook phone; have you heard of anyone using it.
Even Mark does not! He is very particular about his privacy, I have heard.
Mark tried to acquire Snapchat and when his advances were rebuffed, he copied the features of Snapchat and deployed it to all of their products – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
After WhatsApp, Mark went and splurged another Billion dollars on a Kickstarter project called Oculus Rift. A VR headgear that has gone nowhere since. Mark has been convinced that people should want to live in a VR world and his belief in that nonsense has only grown since the Pandemic and the increasing reliance on remote work.
Facebook is truly a One Trick Pony. But it does its trick well. Facebook has prioritised revenues and profits over all else. They have designed their algorithms to keep people on the platform for as long as possible. The longer people are on Facebook the more opportunities exist to show ads. The more ads they show, the more the revenue.
Priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention. For example, the word NURSE is recognized more quickly following the word DOCTOR than following the word BREAD. Priming can be perceptual, associative, repetitive, positive, negative, affective, semantic, or conceptual. Research, however, has yet to firmly establish the duration of priming effects, yet their onset can be almost instantaneous.
Facebook uses this technique quite often to take you down a rabbit hole of hatred. They notice posts that you engage more with and then offer up more and more related content because that is guaranteed to keep you on the site.
Imagine, I showed you an article on the atrocities that the Belgians committed in Congo. If I showed you the work that the Belgians have done in the field of Ornithology and bird conservation next; you are likely to face enormous cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile the bad that they did, with the good. If instead, I take you down a rabbit hole of Belgian atrocities in Africa, you are already primed for it. Your hatred increases, your blood pressure rises and you are left wanting more.
Incidentally, the company’s refusal to allow one of its employees to work remotely led to the leak of the Facebook papers. Those papers were published last week. They proved that the company was aware of the above.
Early one morning in September 1982, the parents of 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove found their daughter dying on the bathroom floor. Hours earlier, she had complained of a cold, and her parents had given her one capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol, the nation’s most popular remedy for minor discomfort. Hers was among three poisoning deaths reported that day, and each victim had taken Tylenol caps laced with cyanide. The death toll would soon reach seven.
Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson’s response later became the grist for countless business classes. According to one account from a Department of Defense series on Crisis Communication Strategies, Johnson & Johnson chair John Burke immediately formed a strategy team. “The team’s strategy guidance from Burke was first ‘How do we protect the people?’ and second ‘How do we save the product?’” Note the order.
Yet the Facebook Papers show the company was aware of multiple harms resulting from its product, arguably with greater impact than the Tylenol case. The company’s own research shows that Facebook posts have encouraged rioters in Myanmar and contributed to teens’ mental health struggles. This is not the result of tampering, as with Tylenol—Facebook’s products are working as designed, albeit with unintended consequences. Presumably fixing that design, after dozens of research projects exposed the shortcomings, would be the company’s top priority. But where is the urgency? That is the question badge posters ask. For all the billions Facebook spends on security, it lowballs safety in many countries where it is short on native speakers of the language.
Facebook today is a company in duress. It has played a key role in the manipulation of elections in several countries. It has also been a hotbed for conspiracy theories as well as misinformation. The company can almost single-handedly take responsibility for the rise in populist politics across the world as well as the terrible response to COVID-19. Further, products such as Instagram have been shown to cause self-esteem issues amongst teenagers. The situation is terrible.
Nobody seems to be impressed with the Pony’s tricks anymore.
So what do you do? PIVOT.
Welcome to Meta.
The company is doing a couple of things. On the one hand, the company is rebranding itself, Meta. The hope is that the fresh coat of paint would make people forget the excesses of Facebook and at the same time it could also help the management distance itself from the dumpster fire that is Facebook. It would make it seem like one of the products on their portfolio has a problem rather than the entire company being a problem.
The soon to be, Trillion dollar company has also completely lost the trust of the younger generation. Yes, they do flock to Instagram even today but Facebook itself has become irrelevant and the next paradigm is beckoning.
Facebook always had to play second fiddle to Apple and Google because they could not own the platform, they were merely an app on the platform. The company has always tried to own everything. A long time ago, they created their own language FBML to replace HTML. It did not work out. React.js, a language they created to code their app has been a huge success and many developers have adopted it as well. They want to own the platform that comes after Smartphones.
Mark seems certain it is going to be VR, and he seems intent on owning that platform.
A few years ago I spoke to a few executives from Technicolor; they had run experiments to see if people would want to watch movies in VR. What they found was that movie watching was a passive mode of entertainment and nobody wanted to be a part of the movie itself. The results were unequivocal. Just like novels that expect you to make decisions on the plot twist have never been more than experiments, so it is with VR.
Zoom has shown us that many of us just would like to be on regular phone calls rather than in front of a camera.
Mark seems to think that we will use VR to conduct meetings and engage with people; ostensibly, the original purpose of Facebook. I do not claim to have had a great deal of exposure to VR, but VR would be a great platform for gaming from what I have seen and heard. Period. I do not think it will take to other use cases too well.
Rarely does an incumbent manage to come up with the next paradigm. By acquiring Oculus Rift very early, Facebook has short-circuited the market and use-case discovery process. Instead, the company is intent on forcing the use case their emperor deems fit. This effort is bound to fail. Facebook VR will join a long list of failures that the company has amassed over the years.
The only other question that remains unanswered is – Can Facebook manage to escape scrutiny thanks to the rebranding? I doubt it will. Even if it does in America, the odds of escaping unscathed in Europe are slim.