This week Facebook announced they are planning to invest massively in what they refer to as the Metaverse – supposedly a “massive reimagining of the social network”. Now if I was cynical, I might suspect this is just a ploy to distract and divert from early stage efforts by the US government to break up Facebook. But I wonder why they would even bother, because government breakup efforts are inevitably hugely protracted with very low odds of any successful outcome. But surely we should recognize the Facebook model has been the cause of many huge societal problems, and we should worry that a “massive reimagining” is more likely to compound those problems and introduce new ones, rather than fix them.
At its core Facebook is a money making machine based on advertising. A hugely successful one. However as we know, the “social” network is a disaster. Over two years ago I blogged, “We have crossed a threshold where Facebook et al are potentially facilitating fixed elections and genocide. It’s time to act.” More recently it’s become patently obvious that Facebook has by its inaction, been supporting all manner of fraudulent and criminal activity that have had catastrophic impacts on society. And Zuckerberg and Facebook have consistently refused to take responsibility and implement meaningful change. The money making machine continues to roll. And very recently we have seen the entirely credible whistleblower, Frances Haugen, who made the devastating disclosure: “Facebook has avoided or rolled back interventions for ‘groups’ and ‘narrow subpopulations’ that it knew reduced misinformation, violence, and incitement because those interventions reduced the platform’s growth.”
In my experience as a senior software product manager, software companies are always driven by user experience. They work intensively to understand how the software product supports, facilitates and enhances the user’s activities. They employ all manner of devices, including surveys, user groups and councils, beta testers etc to get clarity on how the tool might work better in supporting known and unknown tasks and activities. But in Facebooks case it appears that the product management task is the complete opposite of the de facto industry approach. We can infer, they are myopically focused on manipulating user behavior and attracting and developing advertising revenues.
The other aspect to consider is that Facebook is not really inventive. They have acquired a lot of fully formed ideas by acquisition. While they have acquired some 78 companies, most of them have been procured for their people skills. But two products in particular have clearly been acquired for their ideas and capabilities – WhatsApp and Instagram. And what have they done with them? They have run them as separate software product lines! There has been no attempt whatsoever to integrate WhatsApp and Instagram with Facebook into an efficient and effective platform capability. It’s all been about making money running the products entirely separately.
Imagine how WhatsApp could provide more effective chat capabilities in context with Facebook posts. How Facebook groups could be linked with WhatsApp groups to great effect. How messenger could be integrated with WhatsApp, and how Instagram could similarly be seamless with both the other two platforms. And how a common governance layer could underpin them all. Of course there would be reengineering, but the overall user experience could be massively improved. But they have done nothing!
We understand that Facebook has contracts with multiple companies in their attempts to exert some governance over undesirable content and or engagements. But where is the investment in AI in this area. Facebook should by now have developed world leading expertise in context recognition and behavioral guidance, built integral to their platform. But we have to assume they haven’t linked this to monetary gain, rather it’s a negative investment to fend off regulatory bodies or senate committees, so it doesn’t get the right level of investment.
I gather there are very early considerations of breakup; governments looking at spinning off WhatsApp and Instagram. If Facebook had brains and user focused product management, it would be looking at how it’s capabilities could be opened up – to develop industry standards for the integration and or collaboration between various forms of social media and communications. Industry experience is that standards based opening up of platforms is revenue positive for most participants. We have to conclude that the social media environment is still very, very immature.
I worry that a huge focus on the so called Metaverse would simply add yet another layer of unmanaged, ungovernable social capability with even more undesirable effects piled on top of today’s current mess. Talk about “reimagining”; just imagine youngsters unable to differentiate online reality experiences from real life and acting out their unconstrained experiences on real people.
Our problem is that Facebook is a huge monopoly. They can do what they like. Our opportunity is to encourage Facebook to come to recognize that their continued existence could be just as, if not even more lucrative, if it was socially responsible. At this point in time, I have to admit I am not optimistic.