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On Facebook’s 15th birthday, we should be talking about its size

The company’s large user base is the true source of its problems

Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

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On this day in 2004, Facebook entered the world. Today lots of us reckoned with the company 15 years on, and it may surprise you to know that opinions tended to vary sharply depending on whether or not you work there.

Mark Zuckerberg tried to set the tone with a sober but optimistic post on his company’s history. It sounded many of the most familiar notes — did you know Facebook was started in his dorm room? — but also took pains to say that recent coverage of Facebook has been “overly negative.”

As networks of people replace traditional hierarchies and reshape many institutions in our society -- from government to business to media to communities and more -- there is a tendency of some people to lament this change, to overly emphasize the negative, and in some cases to go so far as saying the shift to empowering people in the ways the internet and these networks do is mostly harmful to society and democracy.

To the contrary, while any rapid social change creates uncertainty, I believe what we’re seeing is people having more power, and a long term trend reshaping society to be more open and accountable over time.

Beat reporters were somewhat surprised to see Zuckerberg predicting the rise of a more accountable society, given that he designed Facebook’s corporate governance to prevent the board from holding him accountable. One of the chief lessons of last week’s big conflict with Apple was that many people are desperate to see Facebook held accountable for something, even if only for the violation of another platform’s developer policies.

Perhaps in anticipation of the criticisms likely to attend any Facebook anniversary celebration, the company published a lengthy blog post about the work it was doing to prevent election interference, improve data privacy, and promote the well being of its user base. This was justly ignored by my fellow beat reporters, who were busy highlighting and screenshotting full paragraphs of Zuckerberg’s post and adding variants of “???” and “!!!”

Wired looked at 15 moments that defined Facebook’s first 15 years, and considered the legacy of its open-source contributions. Recode put together a visualization of the company’s prodigious acquisition of users. Vox asked 15 influential people to consider whether Facebook is good or bad, including Malcolm Gladwell, Sherry Turkle, Jonah Peretti, and Ro Khanna. Only two people gave an unqualified thumbs-up to Facebook: Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley in Congress, and Fox News personality Dana Perino, who I’ll quote here:

Facebook provided a way to reconnect with people from all walks of your life, especially the generations who didn’t grow up with cell phones. A good example is my husband and stepson — they’d been estranged for almost 18 years when finally Barry contacted his dad on Christmas Day a couple of years ago. I now call them “the happy couple” — it’s brought a lot of joy into our lives.

At the New York Times, Sarah Jeong called Facebook “the friendship no one asked for.” In a video that parodies the automated videos Facebook puts together to promote sharing in the News Feed, she runs down 15 years of social-network calamities, in entertaining fashion. Meanwhile, in Slate, Shannon Palus quit Facebook and found that no one cared.

One of my favorite takes today came from a Twitter account, previously unknown to me and apparently anonymous, named Antirobust. In a thread, the author says that it is not yet possible to render a verdict on whether Facebook is a net positive. What’s more important, they say, is that we live in a world that almost inevitably would have produced something like Facebook. They write:

When claiming Facebook is bad, the counterfactual isn’t “everything the same except no Facebook”

It’s “we don’t have the sort of world where innovations in digital communications inevitably lead to something like Facebook”

I don’t want to live in that second world, and neither do you

Perhaps Facebook is uniquely nefarious (bad luck when picking our multiverse, i guess)

But I think when people ask whether ‘Facebook’ is good or bad, they’re mostly identifying general aspects of technology, not anything Facebook-specific

So to wrap-up

The question isn’t really: “do the actual and predicted benefits of Facebook outweigh the actual and predicted costs of Facebook?”

It’s more like: “does the level of oppression required to hopefully eliminate some of the predicted downsides of facebook outweigh the predicted benefit of doing the oppression?”

I think the answer is quite obviously that whatever harms you see in Facebook, the *system* that produced Facebook is overwhelmingly good and essential for the long-run welfare and safety of society.

These points are worth making, though I’d add two notes. One, you can support the system that produced Facebook and still think it ought to be regulated in a more ... robust fashion. (In its what-we’re-working-on post today, the company noted that it is actively seeking more regulation.)

Two, while I believe a Facebook-like service was inevitable, I don’t think its current size or level of power proceed logically from what came before them. Indeed, the company’s user base is unprecedented in size — and that size lies at the root of nearly all of its problems. I can understand why, on its 15th birthday, we are talking about whether it is good or it’s bad. But regardless of how you feel, the question would not feel nearly so urgent were Facebook simply not so big.

Democracy

Facebook Privacy Lapses Are the Target of More Probes in the U.S.

Erik Larson, David McLaughlin, and Sara Forden report that at least three more states are pursuing new inquiries into Facebook’s handling of user data:

The state probes are coalescing into two main groups scrutinizing the social-media company’s data-protection practices, said the people, who declined to be named because the inquiries are confidential.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Illinois counterpart, Kwame Raoul, have joined forces with Connecticut’s William Tong, said two people. That group is focused on investigating existing allegations, one of the people said. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, which were already known to be probing Facebook, are seeking to uncover any potential unknown violations, said one of the people. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is also investigating as part of a multi state effort, according to his office.

Apple Filing Details User Data the Company Is Storing in Russia

Big day for the privacy-is-a-human-right company, Mark Gurman and Elena Popina report:

Last year, Apple was criticized for complying with Chinese law requiring the local storage of iCloud accounts for users in that country. The user data stored in Russia are more limited. Foreign Policy magazine said last week that Russian counterterrorism laws could make it easier for the government there to compel Apple to decrypt and hand over other user data to security services.

An Apple spokesman declined to comment. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has said that the company must comply with these types of national laws, while stressing that the data is encrypted using Apple technology.

Russian troll accounts purged by Twitter pushed Qanon and other conspiracy theories

Ben Collins and Joe Murphy look through the latest Twitter accounts to be linked to Russian information operations:

Twitter announced Thursday the removal of 418 accounts tied to the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, the disinformation group whose employees were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller last February for attempted election interference.

The accounts’ tweets featured the hashtag #MAGA, usually in support of President Donald Trump, almost 38,000 times — the most of any hashtag. #ReleaseTheMemo, a social media campaign pushed by allies of the president last year that aimed to discredit some members of the FBI, was tweeted 37,583 times.

Taking Down Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior in Indonesia

Facebook had a big Thursday for forcement, removing a variety of pages linked to Indonesia and also to Iran.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Tells Joe Rogan: Trump Is No Worse Than Obama

I listened to Jack Dorsey’s latest podcast appearance over the weekend and found it to be basically just like all the other ones. Included here for the discussion of Trump’s threats of nuclear war via tweets, and for Dorsey saying the company continues to explore editing tweets (my pet issue).

Elsewhere

Apple restores Facebook’s ability to run internal iOS apps

On the slight chance you’re still catching up to the end of last week’s big story: Facebook got its enterprise certificate back, and so did Google.

Apple Shows Facebook Who Has the Power in an App Dispute

Fun details in the penultimate graf of Mike Isaac’s piece about the enterprise certificate debacle:

After Apple’s revocation, employees inside Facebook became furious with the Onavo team, according to four people familiar with the company’s deliberations. Some said they would have to wait weeks to get app updates or changes approved through Apple’s App Store. Several employees in Facebook’s hardware division said they were considering quitting because they could not get any work done.

We Found People Who Let Facebook Collect All Their Digital Activity for $20 a Month. Here’s What We Learned.

Shannon Palus talks to some of the folks who participated in the Facebook Research project:

One user, who identified themselves as 32 years old and reported that they had netted $30 in gift cards with the app, told me via email, “I’m not too worried about that data because I’m almost certain these companies collect that stuff anyway,” and that, “Google and Amazon know a lot already.” The user explained they do a lot of little paid tasks to earn money, like downloading apps or completing surveys. It isn’t significant, they said, but acts as a little bonus to their household income, which they told me is $60,000 a year. “Lately most of my earnings have gone to simple things (groceries, MetroCards, date night),” they wrote.

What would happen if Apple fully banned Facebook from the App Store?

Ashley Carman explores the question posed in the headline:

If Apple went through with it, Facebook would have few options — none of them good — for getting its app onto iOS devices. Facebook could use something called internal development certificates, which are designed for in-house beta testing, Farrugia says, but only 100 devices can be added per year. Jailbroken devices could install the app, but most people aren’t jailbreaking their phones, so Facebook couldn’t rely on it.

After a ban, Facebook’s best bet would be to encourage people to use its web app, but that has its own disadvantages. For one, native phone apps are often faster and give users an experience they’re used to, iOS developer Kiran Panesar tells The Verge. Web apps are less powerful, too. They don’t offer a comparable push notification system, he says, which is essential for messaging apps, and they can’t access information that a native app could, like a person’s contacts or the ability to track their location in the background.

Facebook Makes First Blockchain Acquisition With Chainspace

Alex Heath reports that Facebook’s blockchain division made its first acquisition:

The social network has quietly hired the team behind Chainspace, a small blockchain startup founded by researchers from University College London, Cheddar has learned. Chainspace was building a decentralized “smart contracts” system that could facilitate payments and other services through blockchain technology.

The acquisition of Chainspace’s team, a move known in Silicon Valley as an acqui-hire, is the clearest sign yet of Facebook’s ambition to be a big player in the nascent blockchain industry. Veteran Facebook executive and former PayPal President David Marcus was tapped to lead Facebook’s blockchain group earlier last year.

How Facebook and YouTube help spread anti-vaxxer propaganda

Julia Carrie Wong examines how anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists have benefited from their embrace of social networks. (It’s a classic example of a data void.)

The Guardian found that Facebook search results for groups and pages with information about vaccines were dominated by anti-vaccination propaganda, and that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm steers viewers from fact-based medical information toward anti-vaccine misinformation. […]

Both Facebook and YouTube have begun treating misinformation that can lead to “real-world harm” (as Facebook terms it) as a special category meriting additional scrutiny and mitigation. These policy changes followed public pressure over incidents revealing the consequences of viral misinformation, such as a spate of lynch mobs in Sri Lanka and India linked to false rumors of child abductions spreading on WhatsApp, and the harassment of victims of mass shootings in the US on YouTube.

Snopes pulls out of its fact-checking partnership with Facebook

Snopes will no longer check facts for Facebook, saying it’s a bum deal, Daniel Funke reports. The Associated Press followed the company out the door.

Users are buying and selling Instagram accounts for their follower counts

Emma Grillo reports that people are spending big money for popular Instagram accounts, even though it’s against the terms of service:

While a similar moneymaking opportunity exists on YouTube, building a large Instagram following doesn’t require making original creative content. A YouTuber has to shoot and edit videos for their channel, which typically lends itself to a very recognizable and personal brand. An Instagram account runner, on the other hand, can repost pictures of tropical beach locations and gain a following in the tens of thousands without ever uploading a picture they themselves took.

Twitter cuts off API access to follow/unfollow spam dealers

In a welcome move, Twitter shut down API access to those companies that you pay to follow thousands of accounts in the hopes that some of them will follow you back. Josh Constine reports:

Today, Twitter is stepping up its fight against notification spammers. Earlier today, the functionality of three of these services — ManageFlitter, Statusbrew, Crowdfire — ceased to function, as spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra.

Harassment, Transphobia, and Racism: A Look Inside Blind’s Anonymous Chatting Forum for Google Employees

Every anonymous messaging app eventually devolves into cruelty and abuse, and such is the case with Blind. Jennings Brown reports on a bunch of ugly, bigoted statements shared by Google employees inside the app.

Meet the Creator of the Egg That Broke Instagram

The bad news is that the world-record egg (whose name is Eugene) turned out to be just another vehicle for brand advertising. The good news is that the egg is promoting mental health awareness, Jonah Engel Bromwich and Sapna Maheshwari report:

“People have fallen in love with this egg, and Eugene the egg wants to continue to spread positive messages,” said Alissa Khan-Whelan, 26, one of the friends working with Mr. Godfrey.

Launches

Instagram to launch ‘sensitivity screens’ after Molly Russell’s death

After a teenager died and her family reported that she regularly viewed self-harm content on Instagram, Instagram announced it would make changes aimed at making those images harder to find. Alex Hern reports:

That includes “sensitivity screens” for images of self-harm, which blur the image behind them until the user explicitly indicates they want to view the graphic content. The company has also blocked images of cutting from showing up in search, hashtags or account recommendations. Mosseri said the changes would make it more difficult for people to see those images.

The company is also investing in “engineers and trained content reviewers”, who are working “around the clock to make it harder for people to find self-harm images”, Mosseri said in a comment piece for the Telegraph newspaper.

Months later, Facebook has updated its apps for the iPhone XS Max, XR, and new iPad Pros

This happened just one day after Facebook’s enterprise developer certificate got restored, prompting speculation that these developments were … not unrelated:

It’s taken a few months, but Facebook has finally updated its iOS apps to support the higher resolutions of the larger iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR phones that Apple released last fall, allowing Facebook to run at the device’s native resolution instead of just scaling up the iPhone XS-sized one, via 9to5Mac.

Twitter now lets you invite guests into Periscope live streams

This feature has been on the product roadmap since 2015, if you wanted a good proxy for the speed of product development at Twitter.

Takes

Facebook Is Done Apologizing

Shira Ovide says Facebook executives were back in their groove during last week’s earnings call:

This is more optimism from Facebook’s executives than I’ve heard in some time. Again, not much has changed since the last earnings report in October. Yes, revenue growth and profit were better than expected in the fourth quarter, and the company’s average daily users increased (by a hair) in North America and Europe — its most important advertising markets. Facebook is still helping businesses effectively find customers, and that is the formula for internet success. The company’s stock shot up, although shares remain about 20 percent below where they were at a July peak.

Facebook has declared sovereignty

In the wake of Facebook announcing it would build an independent oversight board, Molly Roberts notes that the company increasingly acts like a sovereign state:

A company that once protested that it was merely a platform and not a publisher is now acknowledging that its role in society is so outsize, and its decisions about who can say what so consequential, that it must establish a check on its own dominance.

Call it a court or call it, as Facebook now does, an oversight board, this company, by adopting a structure of government, is essentially admitting it has some of the powers of a government. The question is what that means for the rest of us.

Regulate social media now. The future of democracy is at stake.

Anne Applebaum argues that regulators need to do the work that social networks have been all too content to do for themselves:

These stories have something in common: They illustrate who is making the rules of our new information network — and it isn’t us. It isn’t citizens, or Congress, who decide how our information network regulates itself. We don’t get to decide how information companies collect data, and we don’t get to decide how transparent they should be. The tech companies do that all by themselves.

Why does it matter? Because this is the information network that now brings most people their news and opinions about politics, about medicine, about the economy. This is also the information network that is fueling polarization, that favors sensational news over constructive news and that has destroyed the business model of local and investigative journalism.

And finally ...

Randi Zuckerberg: Dad gave Mark the option to open a McDonald’s franchise

Randi Zuckerberg is Mark’s sister, a former Facebook employee, and a regular public-relations headache for the company. And so I was interested to read her thoughts on Facebook’s 15th birthday, particularly as it relates to its past two years of public reckoning. She told CNN:

“We are putting so much pressure on young people to create multi-billion dollar companies that of course, how could they have time to think about the future implications of what they’re building,” she said. “I think [Facebook] builds things with great intentions, and because of shareholder obligations, [it] didn’t have the time to sit and think, ‘Wait, these tools that we’re building, what could happen with them?’”

How would have Facebook turned out if we didn’t put so much pressure on young people? I wish I knew.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your birthday wishes for Facebook: casey@theverge.com.