Why this week feels significant to me
I keep finding myself thinking about this verse from Bert at the beginning of Mary Poppins:
Winds in the east, mist coming in, / Like somethin' is brewin' and bout to begin. / Can't put me finger on what lies in store, / But I fear what's to happen all happened before.
Ever since Mark decided to change the name of Facebook to Meta and shift the company’s priorities, I’ve been wondering if perhaps Mark was coming to peace with the fact that the blue app was starting to stagnate and was trying to get ahead of the fact that more and more people would likely stop using it.
The earnings call on Wednesday certainly seemed to make a case for that, and the subsequent stock drop has me feeling that we’ll look back on this week as the moment when this massive battleship as we knew it finally stopped moving the direction it was going in and truly started to pivot.
Last year, I started looking at how technology has impacted democracy and broke it up into a few phases. First was the utopian step when most people thought the Internet would be the great democratizer. Then starting on May 9, 2016 (the day of the Philippines election and the trending topics controversy at Facebook), we started moving into the reckoning phase, where we began to realize the downside of the Internet. I then had us moving into a regulatory stage which I think will last just the next year or so, and I think this week starts to transition us again into a new phase of disruption. I jotted down so many things to write about as things were unfolding that I’m going to try to thread them all together here.
First, I hope that this week truly starts to shift the conversation away from just focusing on Facebook and continues to broaden how integrity issues - especially content moderation - are problems for numerous platforms and industries. The Joe Rogan/Spotify incident shows this. I appreciate how Spotify, Rogan, and people like Brené Brown acted during this. Rogan seemed sincere in his apology, and all we can do now is see if he truly changed. Brown modeled what it looks like to pause, listen and then respond. This is how we should want people to act when they realize that they need to change.
Moreover, to me, this is the market working. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have every right to walk away if they don’t like Spotify’s actions. Same with users. And, Spotify should have to face the consequences of their decisions about which content they choose to pay for. This is another example of how society is working out what our new norms should be for content on the Internet. Also, if I were Apple and iHeartRadio, I’d be making plans for what I’m going to do when people decide to focus on the fact that they still carry Steve Bannon’s podcast. They aren’t paying him, but that’s a situation just waiting to explode.
Second, the regulatory environment is getting interesting as well. The U.S. pushing back on the E.U. for their regulation is an exciting polarity the administration is trying to hold while still supporting antitrust measures here at home. The Senate has now aggressively moved two bills out of committee, and there’s this feeling that they want to try to rush something before everyone turns to the midterms. I’m not confident something will happen in the U.S. Clearly, Mark feels the same as U.S. regulation was only passively addressed by him in the earnings call when he kept making the point about how TikTok is a competitor - but he did specifically call out the regulation in the E.U. Plus, if Facebook’s stock keeps going down, it’s flirting with going below the market cap threshold some of these bills have.
Third, I hope that Facebook’s earnings don’t deflate the balloon and urgency to fix these problems on social media platforms. Just because Facebook lost a few million users does not mean that it still has a tremendous impact on society - especially outside the United States. I’m worried that this Silicon Valley shift to focus on crypto, blockchain, NFTs, and the metaverse will move so fast that they fail to think about how to do this transition responsibly. I’d like to hear more from the companies about how they are ensuring that they just aren’t abandoning where the problems are while they continue to try to innovate.
Fourth, on the flip side of transitioning responsibly, one of the things I’ve been grappling with is wondering if I’m holding on too much to how we used to do things at the company - Crowdtangle, Civic Integrity, elections, etc. - and am I doing enough to embrace any changes that might need to be done to face our current realities. This thread on Twitter by Steven Sinofsky has an interesting take on Facebook reallocating resources. I don’t have any answers here, but it’s on my mind because I worry that current regulation is too focused on how things were versus where they are going.
Fifth, I found Mark’s insight about how many people are moving away from sharing in the feed to sharing content in smaller groups of people via messenger apps. They are then consuming content via things like stories or reels. Given end-to-end encryption on many of these messaging apps and how content like stories is ephemeral, this will make tracking mis and disinformation exponentially harder.
Finally, my former colleague Crystal Patterson said this on Twitter yesterday, but this is an excellent example of why Facebook - and all apps - focus on growth. If they don’t, the market is going to respond. In some ways, this inflection point for the company might give them a breather of always being in the spotlight and give them a chance to see if they can make this pivot work. Then again, we also have to make sure we don’t just start ignoring them altogether.
I’m curious to see what the next six months to a year hold. I remember in 2012 how campaigns complained about how there were tools like custom audiences that didn’t exist at the beginning of the year that was critical for them as Election Day approached. Given how fast Facebook and Silicon Valley move, we need to stay on top of this very carefully because what we think might be issues for the midterms today may very well not be.
What I’m Reading
New York Times: How Facebook Is Morphing Into Meta
Daniel Pink, WSJ: ‘No Regrets’ Is No Way to Live
Regulate.tech Podcast: Political advertising - what is it and how should we regulate it?
Financial Times: Top German court instructs Facebook to divulge data on users who insulted M.P.