Why did you sign-up for Facebook? I’ll wager it’s a question you didn’t really think about until the past few months. Maybe it crossed your mind earlier in which case- bully for you- but as I’ve written about elsewhere, the insidiousness of Facebook is how seamlessly it fits into our offline social interactions and network. I remember the first time a family member said that they didn’t want me to post photos of my niece and nephew on Facebook- I was a bit uptight about it. What a strange emotional response- right? But that was probably at the height of my platform usage. I was in grad school and fairly isolated from much of my family and friends. Facebook was my window and so I was upset that I couldn’t share those images with my network. It felt like I was being told I couldn’t pull out old-school wallet photos of them.
But therein lies the absolute critical differentiation. Wallet-photos are mine. Facebook images aren’t. Rather in exchange for our ability to share, we allow Facebook to peer over our shoulders, scoop up our meta-data and conduct dubious studies on our emotions by manipulating the types of stories and content we’re served. Looking back, I blush thinking about that. How absolutely right my family members were to keep their kids off of the network. And how invested I had become in a one-size-fits all solution, like Facebook, to take care of the work of maintaining relationships.
Let me be clear. I knew that Facebook was collecting data and I probably knew a more than you did because this is the space I work in. I definitely shut my eyes to the possibility for abuse- I think many of us did.
But what worries me is that every sign points to Facebook and the other networks looking at this current uproar as a PR issue versus a fundamental societal awakening to the need for privacy. The former is something that Zuck with his creepily boyish charm can bat away while the latter would indicate a core shift in user behavior. If anyone at Facebook is currently connecting the dots, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer should send chills down their spine. Between 2017 and 2018, Edelman documented a profound loss of trust in our institutions, observing the deepest decline ever measured.
Dig a little deeper and the problems for social networks such as Facebook come into even sharper relief:
Trust is the foundation of our relationship with our environment and each other. Every day we go through life obeying certain societal norms because we trust that others in our society will as well. As anyone who has been in a family feud knows, once that trust is broken it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild. Distrust rots the core of any unit. It’s for this reason that Authoritarian regimes go out of their way to strip away public trust. Most famously, the Stasi used networks of informants and blackmail to the point that no one could trust each other (Read Timothy Garton Ash’s The File). My point is that trust is far easier to break than it is to restore. And once trust is broken you suddenly find yourself questioning everything you know, all decisions you make. You find yourself altering your behavior and, most notably, vowing to never make that mistake again.
That’s why Facebook and others should be worried. Altered user behavior. A death-knell for platforms that measure success by MAUs.