It was probably inevitable, but the crisis engulfing Facebook is one of the most embarrassing examples of Silicon valleys hubris in the last two decades.
A company that specialises in connecting people, an exercise that requires people to trust the platform as a place to share content, has managed to simultaneously violate that trust and act totally surprised in doing so. When Facebook was first created it was a place for university students to share stories, an occasional photo and talk to friends when they couldn’t afford to call abroad. Today it is a business platform for multinational corporates, a virtual monopoly in the global social media world (excluding the great digital firewalls of China and Russia), as well as the largest surveillance mechanism ever created by man. If the apocryphal tales that Facebook was created by the CIA ever become more than conspiracy theories, I would take the agents out for a beer. It’s hard to imagine them being more successful in manipulating billions of people to hand over the most intimate details of their life than Facebook.
But what do we do about it? Facebook IS the only platform where everyone can find a friend, family member or old classmate from their school days. It also owns Whatsapp, Instagram and nearly brought out Snapchat (before deciding it was cheaper just to copy all of their ideas into Instagram instead). Indeed, the monopoly is alive and very well in the social media space. So much for a dynamic and free market that internet radicals long predicted.
The issue with Facebook is that it has transcended its role as a tech company and become a global public good, much in the way that GPS, SWIFT and Wikipedia have done. This conflict between its corporate needs and Facebooks public nature is at the heart of the conundrum that is threatening Facebooks future role as the global sharing platform.
There may come a time where individuals lose their inhibitions and learn to accept the flawed nature of humanity, such that the embarrassing university photos and awkward Facebook status of our childhood become nothing more than a source of amusement. But we are not there yet.
In the interim the most radical solution may yet be the one true way to ensure the eternal legacy of Zuckerberg’s creation: turn the company into a global charity with an international non-partisan board. Such a solution has long been muted for Twitter, another social media company that serves a clear public good, but unlike Facebook it has lacked the will (some would say ability) to extract the financial gains necessary to ever become commercially viable.
A world where Facebook becomes a utility like Verizon or a charity like Wikipedia is hardly likely to thrill investors and tech entrepreneurs. Then again, few people who change the world ever live to see the real fruits of their efforts.
If Zuckerberg is serious about fixing Facebook he needs to find a way to square the circle between regaining user trust and generating the returns expected by Wall Street.
For a man more concerned about his public appearance than his bank account, Mr Zuckerberg could do worse than consider what Facebook would look like if it became a true global public good rather than a Wall Street darling. The clock is ticking and the users are leaving.
Your move Mr Zuckerberg.