If Mark Zuckerberg ever came to me for advice, wondering why people hated Facebook so much, I’d have him close his eyes and remember his freshman year at Harvard — all the friends he made (except these guys), the lasting relationships (except this one), and the meaningful late-night debates they all had around building global technology platforms that could wreak havoc on society.
Seriously though, when Zuckerberg first built Facebook, he was simply looking to digitally connect his college friends, a small community of folks he knew in the offline world. But today, of course, 14 years later, Facebook is worlds apart from that original vision. It is much less Harvard Yard than it is a bloated colosseum of the shouting, seething masses competing with each other to be heard and shared.
“We hate what Facebook has become and need it to change,” I’d whisper in Imaginary Mark’s ear, with the gentle hiss of the grim reaper.
Imaginary Mark would protest. He’d point out that Facebook has done a lot of good in the world. Its suicide prevention feature detects worrisome messages and sends mental health resources to the user or their friends. Its election reminders have effectively mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to vote.
“And what about that photo of your ex, all drunk and belly spilling out at that party,” Imaginary Mark would add. “That photo made you happier than any cute panda video in your feed.”
I can tell Imaginary Mark is getting grumpy. It’s time for his afternoon Mandarin lesson/interaction with normal humans in flyover states/jog with a diverse-looking employee. He doesn’t have time for negativity.
So let’s indulge him for a second and talk about everything that’s rosy. And then we’ll talk about how Facebook can use the good on their platform to fix the bad.
Understanding what’s good about Facebook
What characterizes our best experiences on Facebook is a sense of deep human connection. Not the moments when a distant contact posts an enraging video about a current political issue, or when an irrelevant ad for a toothbrush pops up in our feed. Rather, it’s the intimate moments: the engagement photo of the college roommate you adored but fell out of touch with, your cousin’s first baby photo, the chance to watch your ex gradually accumulate pockets of fat in unfortunate spots on his body.
“I know all of this already,” Imaginary Mark groans in response, pulling up a Facebook page that he proceeds to read with the same monotone enthusiasm as his congressional testimony.
That thing he’s pointing to is his 2017 manifesto, a 6,000-word affair in which he stated that “building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional, and spiritual needs.” Zuckerberg pledged that, going forward, the company would focus on pushing people into more of these meaningful groups and communities, suggesting that Facebook analytics show what we all intuitively know — that we prefer the small and private connections over the public shouting, grandstanding, and boasting that occupies much of our feed.
But for all of Zuckerberg’s grand statements about supporting meaningful communities, so far the only initiative to make Facebook feel more intimate has involved favoring posts from your personal connections over public content in your news feed. While that shift may have focused our eyeballs more on status updates than news articles (a tragedy for digital publishers, by the way), the main thrust of Facebook has remained largely unchanged. Our news feed is still a blend of public and private content; we still have a ton of quizlets and news articles. In fact, in some ways, it’s gotten even worse. In an effort to boost engagement, Facebook has pushed viral videos and Facebook Live (which allows someone to livestream themselves giving their hot take on a new nail polish color—or committing a murder, rape, or suicide — that can then be broadcast to the masses).
Is it any wonder, then, that we still think of Facebook as a drain on our time, energy, and collective soul?
The Facebook we want: smaller, more private spaces
As Zuckerberg acknowledged in his manifesto, some of our best experiences on Facebook are the ones that approximate the sense of small communities — keeping up with distant family and friends, getting advice from people tackling the same problems we are, and bonding over common interests with others.
On social media platforms, the most public spaces encourage bad behavior. They play into our ego-driven desire to be seen and noticed, which in turn pushes us to be louder, meaner, and showier than the person next to us. The funny person gets good at the mean snipe; the armchair philosopher gets drawn into boorish battles with friends. The bitter voter becomes a raging bull pooping on any political post they can find.
Our best experiences on Facebook are the ones that approximate the sense of small communities.
In contrast, smaller, private communities — groups for mothers, those suffering from a particular disease, a jogging club, etc. — are typically governed by self-imposed constraints. We care about what others in the community think, and we take greater care with our actions and words. Sure, these spaces can have their dramas, and any space can be used for bad as well as good, but the bonds of the community generally incentivize good behavior and conflict resolution.
Facebook could optimize for this. The company could evolve its platform into a more private space by stopping the constant push to get us to friend every person on the planet and instead nudging us toward higher-quality interactions with fewer individuals.
The only downside is that this would mean the loss of pretty much everything Facebook seems to care about.
Is a private Facebook possible?
Facebook would face two significant challenges in trying to convert its platform into a network of more private spaces.
First, Facebook is fundamentally built on the premise that you should connect with as many people as possible. More connections means more content means more chances to serve you ads. If Facebook pushed its users toward smaller conversation and groups, it would start to look like Snap or Instagram—more private social networks that monetize at a considerably lower rate. What Facebook would gain in trust and positivity it would lose in ad dollars.
Second, there is little perception of privacy on Facebook. Even if you make use of its many layers of privacy and group settings (and who does?), you are constantly bombarded with more public content — news articles from friends, a photo in which you’re tagged for all your connections to see. You may have a super-private, 20-person San Jose sex positivity group, but when you are constantly surrounded by public content, you might worry about some spillage of those posts into Grandma’s feed. This fear has only been compounded by the evidence that Facebook has shown little regard for our personal data, allowing third parties like Cambridge Analytica a degree of access that we as users would likely never have permitted.
Can Facebook grow without changing?
For all our talk about #DeleteFacebook, a mass protest movement where we simply log off is unlikely. For some of us, the good still outweighs the bad. For others, we’d leave it behind in a second if it weren’t for all those event invitations or convenient birthday reminders. Zuckerberg probably has us locked up from the time of our own graduation pics to our grandkids’ graduation pics.
But we are not Mark Zuckerberg’s endgame. He needs fresh blood to keep Facebook growing and Wall Street happy.
That’s why he tried to push Facebook onto people in India under the guise of free internet, and why he tried to curry favor in China by offering to let the president give an honorary name to his child. (Xi Jinping said no because, obviously, that would be weird.)
Putting China to the side (it’s complicated and will require Zuckerberg sacrificing more than just his kid’s name for him to penetrate), the next billion or so users to come online are crucial to Facebook’s future success. That means Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and India. And, of course, teenagers — new people who can replace all of us so that the platform doesn’t die with us.
The problem is Zuckerberg may not be able to land any of those users if he can’t resolve the tensions around private communities and public spaces. Many of his future users have an even greater need for private spaces than his existing user base. While rules and cultural norms obviously vary from one country to the next, Facebook’s next billion users will predominantly come from countries where public speech carries greater consequences; where one may end up threatened, imprisoned, or even killed for what they post on social media. This is particularly true for women, who tend to consume social media more than men do.
As for teens, Facebook’s problem with youth is well documented. Teens have proven much warier than older generations of putting their lives online and instead have embraced the far more private experiences of Snap and Instagram. Not only do these spaces tend to be more playful, fun, and real, but they also, quite crucially, are separate from the spaces of adults. After all, no teenager in the history of teenagers has ever wanted to be on the same social network as their parents. For the most part, they just want to connect with their friends, make jokes, and talk about who did what at school.
Not so different, really, from what the rest of us want on a day-to-day basis, or from what Zuckerberg probably wanted to do with Facebook when he first built it at Harvard.
If Facebook is to survive, he’d do well to remember those days.