WASHINGTON, April 5, 2014 — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg lied. It may not have been intentional, but at the end of the day, he lied.
Zuckerberg was the next big thing. The wunderkid. At age 29, he is worth some $25 billion. And he is selling out the very “next big thing” that made him who he is. Facebook has over a billion users, who have created over 54 million pages including more than 25 million small business pages.
Facebook began just over ten years ago in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room. It was built as a social network whose declared purpose was to let users grow “their voice” and expand their reach by collecting new friends. In a May 28, 2010 article entitled “Epicenter: Mark Zuckerberg: I Donated to Open Source, Facebook Competitor,” Zuckerberg was asked whether Facebook could earn more income from advertising as a result of its phenomenal growth. He explained:
I guess we could. … If you look at how much of our page is taken up with ads compared to the average search query. The average for us is a little less than 10 percent of the pages and the average for search is about 20 percent taken up with ads…. That’s the simplest thing we could do. But we aren’t like that. We make enough money. Right, I mean, we are keeping things running; we are growing at the rate we want to. (Wikipedia)
The prospectus for Facebook’s infamous 2012 IPO seemed to lay out a similar theme:
How We Create Value for Users
Our top priority is to build useful and engaging products that enable you to:
- Connect with Your Friends. With more than 900 million MAUs worldwide, our users are increasingly able to find and stay connected with their friends, family, and colleagues on Facebook.
- Discover and Learn. We believe that users come to Facebook to discover and learn more about what is going on in the world around them, particularly in the lives of their friends and family and with public
- figures and organizations that interest them.
- Express Yourself. We enable our users to share and publish their opinions, ideas, photos, and activities to audiences ranging from their closest friends to our 900 million users, giving every user a voice within the Facebook community.
- Control What You Share. Through Facebook’s privacy and sharing settings, our users can control what they share and with whom they share it.
- Experience Facebook Across the Web. Through apps and websites built by developers using the
- Facebook Platform, our users can interact with their Facebook friends while playing games, listening to
- music, watching movies, reading news, and engaging in other activities.
- Stay Connected with Your Friends on Mobile Devices. Through the combination of our mobile sites, smartphone apps, and feature phone products, users can bring Facebook with them on mobile devices wherever they go.
Giddy with the possibilities, Facebook users poked each other, shared FarmVille icons, sent birthday messages and celebrated daily life, ranging from what they had for breakfast to the cute little puppy pictures guaranteed to make cyber-friends cry.
Over time, new-fangled gadgets and larger advertisements were introduced on the right side of Facebook pages. Facebook’s users were encouraged via pop-ups to create new and engaging pages and groups and to interact with them through this huge and growing social network. Entrepreneurs were encouraged to attach “brand” or company pages to their profiles and to buy Facebook ads to expand their reach or increase the numbers of Facebook users who “saw” a post.
All along, however, Facebook was assiduously gathering substantial quantities of detailed user data. Age, sex, marital status, locations, income, how many kids, dogs, cats, and just about everything else an advertiser could want to know — all this was being collected. As a big-time data snoop, NSA has nothing on Facebook.
For Facebook, this mass of meticulously-collected data is invaluable for a variety of reasons. As with any commercial enterprise, however, the main attraction of this huge data-bank is that it can be used to sell targeted advertising on the millions of Facebook pages that users have created. Note: That users have created. Facebook didn’t create those pages. They simply manage the platform.
In exchange, they obtain the users’ free labor. And users have been happy to do this because Zuckerberg promised that all this would be free and fun. Forever. And that “we” could stay connected. And that “our voice” was important and should be heard.
In his February 2012 letter to investors Zuckerberg wrote:
“Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.”
“We think it’s important that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us, how we make decisions and why we do the things we do.”
In other words, if you like your Facebook, you can keep your Facebook. In exchange, users built Facebook pages, clicked on Facebook advertisements, gave Zuckerberg oceans of free data and helped transform Facebook into a $144 billion company.
Fools that they are, Facebook users naively continued to believe Zuckerberg’s promise: It would always be their Facebook. And for ten years, that is exactly what it was. But everyone should have known that a good thing like this wouldn’t last.
Or maybe they didn’t. Users continued to build followings for blogs, online businesses, political affiliations, hobbies, church groups, schools. They started mommy and recipe groups, created fan pages for favorite bands, actors and movies. People actively put their time and effort into the network and used the mobile apps because they believed everything would always be free, organic and fun.
Facebook made wheelbarrows of money by selling advertising to larger companies who could use Facebook data to target their message, helping them extract even more money from Facebook users who could spend a few dollars to increase their reach.
Facebookers diligently clicked away, creating more page views, generating more and more money for Facebook, which grew into a social networking behemoth, a business clearly more concerned with making money than with the mission Zuckerberg had promised in 2012.
And what he lied about is that those likes you diligently collected — responding to perfect strangers who became your closest cyber buddies, acquired as a result of your care, compassion and humor — all those pages created, fine tuned, and grown by you are no longer your pages under your control.
Users can no longer Connect with Your Friends • Discover and Learn • Express Yourself • Control What You Share • Stay Connected with Your Friends on Mobile Devices because Facebook has changed the algorithms.
Your pages are now subject to Facebook’s whims. The situation is not unlike President Obama’s “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” half-truths: You can keep your doctor if you like, but only if you pay a premium for the privilege.
Next page: What Facebook’s changes mean to you