Why you should care
If Facebook suddenly disappeared, we’d lose out on a lot more than just photo sharing and messaging.
In September, a group of high school students in Melbourne, Australia, started a Facebook group called “Subtle Asian Traits.” The teenagers are all first-generation Asian migrants, and they wanted a space to bond over the theme of living in a Western culture with Asian-born parents. The group has amassed nearly 1 million members in less than four months. What began as a place to share memes and inside jokes about Asian culture has become a community where members discuss the racism they experience, their struggle to be bilingual and the parental pressure they face on a daily basis.
It would be an understatement to say Facebook had a tough 2018 — from multiple data breaches to unpermitted data collection and the revealed influence of Russian hackers in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook tested the limits of user trust last year. But if the world’s largest social network went away, we would lose a lot more than the ability to share photos and send messages. More than 1 billion people around the world would no longer be able to connect with others who share their experiences and hardships like the members of “Subtle Asian Traits.”
Recent U.S. news coverage of Facebook has largely focused on the issues of privacy and trust — warning us that the platform could be putting our personal data at risk. Some fear that the network effect — in which each additional member adds value to the platform for its users — could soon work in reverse for the embattled social network, especially among the prized younger demographic. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center …
In the past year, 74 percent of Facebook users have either adjusted their privacy settings, stopped checking their account for a period of several weeks or deleted the app entirely.
The percentage of users ages 18 to 29 who deleted the app in 2018 was more than double the proportion of those ages 50 to 64 who deleted it.
The social network’s user growth has also plateaued in the U.S. and Canada, and declined in Europe, contributing to a $120 billion loss in market capitalization in July. As of the third quarter, Facebook had lost 1 million daily active users in Europe compared with the previous quarter. Twitter also saw user decline in 2018 — the company reported losing 9 million monthly active users in the third quarter, though a large portion of that figure comes from the spam and bot accounts it’s wiping from the platform.
But much of the world isn’t giving up on Facebook just yet. As of September, 85 percent of Facebook’s daily active users are outside the U.S. and Canada. “Concerns around privacy and sharing data are separate from the function Facebook serves,” says Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab. “The idea of big-tech ethics is more abstract outside the U.S.”
If Facebook disappeared tomorrow, the platform’s groups would be one of its hardest-hit offerings. More than 100 million Facebook users belong to a group of some kind. Anne Gu, a co-founder of “Subtle Asian Traits,” recently told the BBC that a member of the group said being part of the community was the first time she “felt a sense of belonging.” In India, “Breastfeeding Support for Indian Mothers” has more than 80,000 members who support one another through various stages of breastfeeding their children. “Africa Farmers Club” has connected 100,000 farmers across the continent to share production techniques and help grow profits.
But the company’s reach goes beyond the limits of its own platform. Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp — two of the largest social media networks in the world. Instagram hit 1 billion users in June and WhatsApp reached more than 1.5 billion this year. If Facebook goes down, these other companies would effectively go down with it.
On the other hand, the downfall of Facebook could open a wealth of opportunity for several other social media companies currently lingering lower on the totem pole. Public companies like Twitter and Snap might see some gains with a Facebook-size hole in the world, and small messaging platforms like Wickr and Silent Circle could see gains without Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp around. This may be especially true because both companies focus on encryption, something that’s becoming increasingly important in the wake of privacy concerns raised by Facebook this year. For the purposes of pure content scrolling, Pinterest and Reddit might see an uptick in users, and in terms of community engagement, neighborhood app Nextdoor could become the go-to for local organizing and events. “There’s really nothing that special about Facebook except that everyone is there,” says Hancock. If Facebook left the world, he says, people would find another place to gather on the internet.
Several former Facebook employees have tried, unsuccessfully, to create that new place. Jumo, a philanthropic social network acquired by GOOD in 2011, and Path, a now shuttered mobile photo sharing and messaging service, were founded by some of Facebook’s early team members. Question-and-answer site Quora and team organization tool Asana were both started by former Facebookers but are not direct competitors of the company. Some ex-Facebook executives now shun the site, as well as social media as a whole. In 2017, during a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, said the company is “ripping apart the social fabric” in societies around the world. The same year, Facebook’s former president, Sean Parker, told Axios that the network is “exploiting a vulnerability in human society.”
Still, if Facebook fails, it would serve as a cautionary tale to many that user privacy must be a top priority. Facebook’s neglect in this area may not ruin the company entirely, but risking the market share drop and PR nightmare that follows certainly doesn’t bode well for business.
In December, the stock market declined by more than 20 percent since Nasdaq’s August high, and technology giants are largely to blame. Facebook fell more than 5 percent, wiping out $28 billion in market capitalization in a single day. But Amazon and Netflix also fell more than 5 percent. Tensions over the U.S. trade war with China, where the government blocks Facebook, are also partly to blame as fear among investors over a global economic slowdown looms large. But when it comes to Facebook, privacy concerns are front and center. Experts caution that the company’s missteps over data privacy are contributing to the worst market decline since 2008, and the total collapse of Facebook could mean a loss of its current $382 billion in market capitalization.
Hancock says the way forward may be to treat Facebook the company and Facebook the platform differently. “Facebook Groups is an amazing space,” he says — and losing the platform means losing the potential of other offerings as well, like Marketplace, Oculus and its fundraising tools. “Still,” Hancock says, “I think we have to hold Facebook the business accountable.”