Yesterday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced to the world that, actually, maybe privacy is a good thing. In a blog post titled “A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking,” Zuckerberg laid out a vision of a social network that wasn’t aggressively tracking everything its users did and crunching the numbers in an attempt to sell them things.
The main thrust of Zuckerberg’s statement is that people are more candid and more comfortable when they are speaking in private and in small groups — and when they get to set actionable boundaries on what is permissible. “People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share,” he writes. To achieve this goal, Zuckerberg announced a plan to build out Facebook’s suite of messaging products — Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram DMs — to include things like end-to-end encryption and ephemerality (i.e., Snapchat-like impermanence). One would hope that Facebook is and has already been committed to other planks that Zuckerberg outlines, like secure data storage.
This is a nice sentiment from Zuckerberg, even if it doesn’t really matter. Once again, Facebook is approaching a problem only by determining more things it can do, not by eliminating problematic things it already does. The core problem with Facebook is not its lack of certain features — it’s the bad features it already has. The primary one is the News Feed, which tries to make lucrative predictions of its users’ actions and desires by thoroughly analyzing their past activity.
Zuck’s new privacy push, he writes, “is different from broader social networks, where people can accumulate friends or followers until the services feel more public. This is well-suited to many important uses – telling all your friends about something, using your voice on important topics, finding communities of people with similar interests, following creators and media, buying and selling things, organizing fundraisers, growing businesses, or many other things that benefit from having everyone you know in one place. Still, when you see all these experiences together, it feels more like a town square than a more intimate space like a living room.”
Zuckerberg is correct here. This is what the News Feed does, and is intended to do. It also generates the overwhelming majority of Facebook’s revenue, and the public-by-default footing of the News Feed is something Facebook foisted on users who weren’t really asking for it. The idea of niche forums and small group chats is not an alien one to anyone whose age is greater than one digit, even though Zuckerberg presents the concept of online privacy (which his very own company has obliterated over the last decade!) as some sort of novelty he discovered in a yurt at Burning Man. In fact, the web was mostly private and balkanized before Facebook decided to cram every type of online interaction together in its News Feed, catalyzing a troubling, world-twisting amount of context collapse in the process.
To that end, the third paragraph of Zuckerberg’s big statement is the tell: “Public social networks will continue to be very important in people’s lives. … . People find these valuable every day, and there are still a lot of useful services to build on top of them. But now, with all the ways people also want to interact privately, there’s also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first.”
I would read this as an assurance that Facebook’s new privacy initiative is meant as a supplement, not a replacement. Advertisers and brand-builders and election-meddlers have no need to worry. Their primary tool for gaining attention, the News Feed, isn’t going away or changing substantially. It’s just that now, regular users will also be able to communicate in other ways too.
Maybe there are reasons to be optimistic about this. A News Feed populated entirely with shameless promotion and devoid of earnest announcements and your cousin’s baby pictures is one that might eventually fall out of heavy usage. But so long as this powerful distribution tool exists, users will harness it, and so long as it forms the foundation of Facebook’s profits, the company will maintain it.
Monetizing encrypted messages and private groups without charging users is not a problem anyone, not even Facebook, has solved. If you read Zuckerberg’s announcement as one that Facebook will abandon its current strategy, then it also becomes an announcement that Zuck is no longer interested in making money or in Facebook’s financial stability. And yet, Facebook’s stock price has not cratered, or even dipped, and nobody on Wall Street seems to be treating this as a drastic change.
That’s probably because it’s not. Facebook isn’t replacing it user-activity harvesting operation in deference to your personal privacy. It’s just creating another product. It’s not gutting the mansion, it’s just building an annex.