If I had to sum up the past year of Facebook in one word, it wouldn’t be a word at all. It would be an emoji. And that emoji would be this one: ?♂️
Seemingly not an hour goes by these days that I don’t open Techmeme and see some ridiculous headline related to the latest Facebook faux pas. At best, the mistakes are eye-roll-inducing. At worst, they’re jaw-droppingly awful. And there are plenty in between which are just some combination of boneheaded, cringe-worthy, tactless, or tasteless. To make matters worse, Facebook clearly has a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease. Whenever they try to respond to a situation, they just exacerbate the issue.
Which raises the question: why?
Certainly a part of it is simply scale. Facebook is used by over 2 billion people. Mistakes happen at companies with far less reach, but literally almost all eyes are on Facebook. Another part is undoubtedly the extraordinary times in which we live. Times in which foreign governments learn how to manipulate social networks to drive political instability. And, of course, Facebook just seems to be in sort of a rut. All companies have ups and downs. Facebook seems to be one in which amazing highs are met with astonishing lows.
Still, it seems to me that a lot of these wounds are self-inflicted. Not just in choices the company makes from a product and policy standpoint, but also how they choose to react to issues when they arise. Even on Friday night, when it seemed like they were doing the right thing by making a swift, decisive move around a very complicated situation, it turns out, no — Facebook was simply reacting quickly because publications were about to run stories about the pilfering of data from their network for mass political profiling. And what’s worse, Facebook was apparently threatening said publications if they ran said stories.
Let’s just review the headlines since the beginning of the year, shall we?
Mark Zuckerberg devoting the year to fixing Facebook (shouldn’t that alwaysbe his job?). Facebook running surveys for which news outlets to trust (what could go wrong crowd-sourcing this?). Messenger Kids (this one didn’t take long to backfire)! Re-engagement mass spam (the thirst is real). Facebook’s friendly pollster (who quit after 6 months). Spyware (like, actual spyware)! Two years of political indecisiveness and cluelessness (and a human punching bag coverstory). An actual fall in users (for the first time ever?). More spam(which then tricks you into publicly posting, no less). Teeing up Trump retweet-bait (on Twitter, no less). Mass shootings, the VR game we’ve all been waiting for (Jesus Christ). Back on Twitter wading into things one probably shouldn’t (as you can see in the comments). Potentially cool facial recognition feature sounds incredibly creepy all of a sudden (timing matters). Survey says: maybe don’t send a survey asking people how they feel about adults asking kids for sexually explicit images (why do you need to ask about this?!). More sex stuff. Adding features to Messenger Lite to make it heavy (sigh). More fun with spyware! Sorry for the child abuse recs (Jesus Christ). And finally, today’s Cambridge Analytica shitshow (and more Twitter fun).¹
Whew. Again, that’s just the past three months! And I’m positive I missed a bunch. My current running gag on Twitter is that there must be a tech press mole planted inside Facebook who is causing the company to do such things. Because nothing else makes sense. You just can’t have this many screw-ups.
And beyond the stupidity and potential danger, I find myself increasingly annoyed simply because it’s certainly not helping to paint our increasingly embattled industry in any better a light. Reading these headlines, you’d think Facebook, and by extension, the tech sector in the Bay Area is the worst place in the world, full of jokers and jerks.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of jokers and jerks. But there are also plenty of brilliant, hard-working people. We can quibble about whether there are more or less than in other industries and other places, but that’s not the point. The point is that I now believe Facebook doesn’t just have an image problem, as I’m sure many around the company would want you to believe — “the press is out to get us!” Facebook has a self-awareness problem.
To put it more bluntly: it seems like Facebook has lost the plot. And given their scale, this is more than a little terrifying.