Facebook's current crisis is unprecedented for many reasons. It's a bipartisan political scandal. It’s also conjured up the threat of possible government regulation. But worst of all for Facebook, it's dragged into the public consciousness a crucial and, for the company, existential question: Facebook has built a vast business by collecting and selling to advertisers lots of information about us. Now that its business has been shown to have done harm — to user privacy, to our elections, and perhaps even to our mental health — Facebook has promised to be more transparent and less creepy about collecting our personal information. But how can it do that and remain a viable business? How do you become less creepy, when creepiness is baked in?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have a good answer to this question, as evidenced by his response when California Rep. Anna Eshoo asked him Wednesday morning in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce if Facebook would change its business model to better protect privacy.
“I don’t understand the question,” Zuckerberg responded.
Facebook’s current list of problems is long and varied — a Gordian knot of engineering, business, and philosophical challenges. But the biggest is really quite simple: Facebook appears to have crossed the “creepy” line. And it can’t go back.
The creepy line is an unofficial rubicon all the big tech platforms have flirted with in recent years. It’s less of a definition than a feeling — that the ad-tech engines that power Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are fueled by invasive and increasingly onerous data collection practices. It was coined, appropriately, by former Google CEO and Chair Eric Schmidt who once said company policy “is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it."
Schmidt’s remark did not go over well when he made it eight years ago. That’s because before Facebook, Google famously weathered many of tech’s biggest privacy scandals, from early concerns that the search company was amassing “enormous amounts of data about people,” to the rollout of its Street View mapping product, which made the exterior of many houses available for anyone to see. Perhaps most brazenly, the company told its users — via a 2013 court filing — that Gmail customers had no "reasonable expectation" of privacy when sending and receiving emails.
But Google always managed to recover from these blunders, often by drawing our attention back to a secondary narrative that touts it as a force for good in the world. Google has long used its ongoing fascination with ambitious “moonshot” technologies to portray itself as a benevolent company with a mission that extends far beyond search. Like Facebook, Google sells targeted advertising based on the information it collects about us. But it also teaches computers how to safely navigate roads without human intervention, it’s developing a smart contact lens to measure glucose levels and kites that harness energy efficiently from the wind. It's also marketed this narrative very, very well: A January 2014 Time magazine asks “Can Google Solve Death?”
And while it has tried to mimic Google’s approach, Facebook has largely failed to do so. Like Google, which says its mission is to organize the world’s information, Facebook has relentlessly messaged its prime directive: to connect the world (something that the internet on which it's built has long been doing). But unlike Google, Facebook’s never been able to articulate what that mission might hope to achieve. Instead, it relies on a vague notion of techno-utopianism — that connecting the world is a universal good and should happen at all costs, as internal communications obtained by BuzzFeed News have revealed.
But despite such ambitions, the company has never truly articulated what’s in it for us if the company succeeds in its ultimate goal. Facebook says its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” That’s a fun thing to say on an investor page, but it leaves a lingering question: Okay, but then what?
In the end, Google makes a lot of futuristic technology — Gmail, Android, the original search, even Google Glass — that feel like useful tools on their own merits. Facebook’s core features — status updates, messaging, photo sharing, news feeds, check-ins — while disruptive and transformative at scale, were never exactly new. Facebook’s true innovation is a ruthlessly efficient and effective machine that serves highly targeted ads in ways that seem increasingly adversarial to traditional views of personal privacy (something that Apple and its CEO Tim Cook see as a vulnerability and have poked at explicitly in recent weeks).
Truthfully, Facebook offers us connections we may not really need and could likely live without, where Google has built data-guzzling tools that, in many cases, feel indispensable. And that feeling is partially the result of purposeful and masterful narrative control. Google has answered that “okay, but then what?” question. It wants to organize the world’s information and then use it to stretch the boundaries of the human race to make everything — from our calendars to our homes to our TVs to our highways and even to our physical bodies — more efficient and satisfying.
Facebook’s mission statement sales pitch falls well short of that. The company’s big Oculus VR moonshot acquisition in 2014 was ambitious, but Zuckerberg’s vision for the headset is vague — it’s…another way to connect the world — only now with more empathy! To date, the company’s most memorable VR moment was an ill-conceived VR tour of storm-ravaged Puerto Rico with Mark Zuckerberg’s cartoon avatar virtually high-fiving a fellow Facebook employee while the two waded through a horrific real-world catastrophe.
Even Internet.org, Facebook’s grand (and so far failed) plan to bring the internet to the developing world, was another initiative that suffered perhaps in part from being too simple. Connectivity has great benefits and everyone should have it, Zuckerberg and Facebook argued. But the company appears to have been blinded by its belief that technology is not value-neutral, but a universal good. It assumes that ‘more internet everywhere right now’ is a proposition with so few downsides that Facebook doesn’t really need to sell it.
But technology is not value-neutral. And adding more of it isn’t always “a de facto good.” Facebook is built on our decision to share our personal information and sacrifice our privacy. But it has never meaningfully explained the value of what it’s giving us in return. Perhaps it can’t.
This has been Facebook’s problem for years. What’s changed in recent weeks, though, is that we’re getting a better understanding of the sacrifice we’re making. Facebook users everywhere are now, after a decade-plus, finally asking the question: Okay, then what? So far, they’ve been met with mostly silence. And that feels creepy.
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