News. There have been ethical problems and ambiguities about Facebook since the moment of its creation. Three books dive into the company that claims to have 2 bio users, is growing 18% a year and sits on 4 og the 5 biggest apps in the Western World.
Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants argues that capturing and reselling attention has been the basic business model from posters in late 19th-century Paris, through the invention of mass-market newspapers. Facebook is in a long line of such enterprises, though it might be the purest ever example of a company whose business is the capture and sale of attention. Very little new thinking was involved in its creation. As Wu observes, Facebook is ‘a business with an exceedingly low ratio of invention to success’. What Zuckerberg had instead of originality was the ability to get things done and to see the big issues clearly. The crucial thing with internet start-ups is the ability to execute plans and to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s Zuck’s skill at doing that – at hiring talented engineers, and at navigating the big-picture trends in his industry – that has taken his company to where it is today. Those two huge sister companies under Facebook’s giant wing, Instagram and WhatsApp, were bought for $1 billion and $19 billion respectively, at a point when they had no revenue. No banker or analyst or sage could have told Zuckerberg what those acquisitions were worth; nobody knew better than he did. He could see where things were going and help make them go there.
In the book Move Fast and Break Things, his polemic against the ‘digital-age robber barons’, Jonathan Taplin points to an analysis on Buzzfeed: ‘In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.’ This doesn’t sound like a problem Facebook will be in any hurry to fix. The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind.
Facebook has two priorities, as García Martínez explains in the third book Chaos Monkeys: growth and monetisation. Facebook simply doesn’t care where the content comes from. It is only now starting to care about the perception that much of the content is fraudulent, because if that perception were to become general, it might affect the amount of trust and therefore the amount of time people give to the site.
The author of the article, John Lanchester, writes:
I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.
He then speculates on different scenarios and says: “What, though, if none of the above happens? What if advertisers don’t rebel, governments don’t act, users don’t quit, and the good ship Zuckerberg and all who sail in her continues blithely on?”
His answer: Facebook will have the same problem as Google increasingly faces: They are running out of humans.