On June 27, 2017 there came an announcement that was remarked upon for all the wrong reasons. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, proclaimed to the world that the social network had 2 billion users online.
Simply a sign of a successful business venture? Merely also a sign of the times in which we live? To the first question posed: yes, it is of course that. To the second, the answer also is “yes,” but that is why we need to be worried.
The import of the announcement of the 2 billion users’ milestone can only be understood when one realizes that, in the thirteen years of its existence, Facebook’s use and global spread is unparalleled in all history. Photography, cinema, radio, television—none came even close to the technological feat achieved by the social network, and in such a relatively short space of time.
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From its inception in 2004, Facebook had by October 2012 hit the 1 billion users mark. Year-on-year since then it has grown at around 17 percent. In 2012, its users were on the network 55 percent of the day; by 2017, it is estimated that that usage now absorbs 66 percent of any 24-hour cycle. So it’s not just that Facebook subscribers are increasing; it is also that they are increasingly using the network.
To give some perspective on the internet leviathan that Facebook has become, compare it with its nearest rivals: Youtube has only 1.5 billion monthly users, Whatsapp (which is owned by Facebook) has 1.2 billion; from there the other websites in the running start to lag well behind these leaders. This makes Facebook a very valuable piece of internet real estate. In fact, Facebook is the fourth most valuable company in the world, with a market price of $505bn. It is clear to anyone with eyes to see a screen that Facebook is already in a league of its own.
There is no getting away from the fact that market access to 2 billion people is an eye-watering prospect for advertisers and politicians alike, for companies and pressure groups, and, of course, crooks and conmen. The sense, however, is that Facebook is not letting anyone near that market to make money from it any time soon, especially when it can do so. But then, when one considers the whole premise of Facebook, it becomes all very strange. Facebook attracts advertisers because of the numbers enticed by its content. And yet it is those same billions of users who are creating the content in the first place for Facebook. Is it the perfect business model? Your customers do the work, the marketing and the selling, and then you sell to them or, better still, sell their information on to others keen to access all those millions on computers, ipads, cell phones busily at work around the clock for Facebook.
The social network has something else besides a huge market though. Because of its nature, what it is and what it provides, Facebook’s database of users is vast; the information it has on each of these users is also deep. Whether this information is demographic, geographic, or merely on who reads graphic novels, Facebook knows who you are and where you are and what it is you are interested in. When, for the first time, advertisers realized the potential of this information, Facebook changed from being just a platform among many to being the platform. From that moment on, Facebook became a money making machine, and there is no sign as yet of that abating. Today, Zuckerberg’s personal wealth alone is estimated at $73bn.
It could be argued that the longer one is on Facebook the more is revealed to the network. For some, this is their family connections, social circle, shopping and entertainment preferences, their reading material, their visual and audio entertainment: all is available for someone to examine, pick over and then offer for sale. Such valuable information is a dream come true for advertisers, at last able to know who you are, where you are, and, most importantly of all, what you are going to purchase.
It is not just information on commercial opportunities that is being offered though. Any interest or focus group can be reached and mobilized via Facebook. To what extent this can or, indeed, does happen is not yet clear, nor how this has—if at all—influenced any election results: on all this the jury is still out, as it is on questions around the effects of any alleged “fake news” emanating from the site. As to whether those at Facebook care about any of this is a different matter; Zuckerberg is on record as stating that 99 percent of what you see on Facebook is “authentic.” Given the amount of traffic running through the website, however, this still leaves a lot of bandwidth for much that is “inauthentic,” or in plain English: lies.
Last June’s announcement that Facebook had 2 billion users came with something else. Zuckerberg unveiled a new mission statement for Facebook. It stated that the aim of Facebook is now to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
What that ‘bringing together’ means is not specified. What is also not mentioned is how much Facebook has already brought its users together, nor where it has brought them to—namely, to the attention of the ever-watchful eye of Facebook itself. No totalitarian regime, no despotic ruler, no government in history has had access to the minds of those under its dictate as Facebook has today with regard to its users. The Big Brother of Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 pales beside the surveillance Facebook carries out every day, every hour, every minute, around the world on the lives and thoughts, hopes and fears of its 2 billion users. And it is by no means an idle or impartial observer. Do Facebook users really think they are in control of what they see? What they can access?
A company as large as Facebook can’t be ignored even if its mission statement reads as apparently banal and meaningless as the 1970s Coca-Cola advertisement wanting to help the world to sing in perfect harmony.
In any event, the corporate reality on offer is too concerning for indifference. Just this Christmas, Catholic charities found their charitable campaigns crippled by what they described as a “Facebook bias” against religious groups. In the previous months, Pro-life groups have had their advertising accounts closed down without any warning by Facebook. When asked why, the Facebook response was only that the decision was final. So this is how Facebook builds community, how it brings people together? It seems Facebook has its own ideas about who is in its “community,” and, also, by definition, who is to be deemed a non-person and banished outside of it. While Zuckerberg seems remarkably calm about the amount of “fake news” flowing through his website available to his 2 billion plus audience, in relation to some views that are neither offensive nor criminal, there appears an eagerness within Facebook to censor them.
The unfortunate inhabitants of the world of 1984 are sad, isolated individuals, paralyzed by fear and self-loathing. In the year of the 2 billion users announcement, there have been a number of press articles asking the same question: is time spent on Facebook making people unhappy? Is it making its users sad, isolated individuals paralyzed by fear, envy and self-hatred? At the end of this momentous year for Facebook, and with no hint of irony, its company press release asked the following question: does time on Facebook make us any happier?
Whatever the answer to the question posed, it can be stated categorically that 2 billion users worldwide spending 66 percent of each day on the social network has made Facebook’s owners not only very happy, but, also, very rich.