Do we need Facebook?


Since just before the vernal equinox, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal has been weighing heavy on our minds. The scandal, rife with intrigue, experimental practices, big data, and blackmail, has caused many to question the role of the world’s most eminent social network. We’ve been here before, of course. Facebook has long been maligned as much as it has been celebrated, but now, as the company’s stock takes a significant dive, it’s time to ask ourselves if we, as a society, truly require this tool.

A Brief History of Quitting

People have been talking about quitting Facebook since 2006 for a number of reasons. The greatest period of interest in quitting Facebook, according to Google Trends, was in May of 2010, when a campaign encouraging people to quit Facebook in protest of their updated privacy policy went viral. Over 40,000 users deactivated their accounts in this time. Since then, many others have decided to follow suit, despite the network growing overall.

Users have many reasons for quitting, but the three most common are focused on data, the network’s impact on society, and the lifestyle encouraged by the network. In terms of lifestyle, Facebook encourages users to treat likes and follows like currency, which can lead people to devote large amounts of time to perfecting posts, selfies, and other activities that generally achieve no end other than refining one’s social presence. And all those lifestyle choices encouraged by Facebook have created a ripple effect in society and culture. People spend more time looking at their newsfeed rather than actually seeing friends. Some users experience difficulty extrapolating their online relationships to face-to-face time.

The Devil's in the Data (Sharing)

Then there’s the data problem. Facebook always seems to have a problem with data. Users get upset that their data is being shared with advertisers, and they have no idea who has what or for how long. And with Facebook in charge of user data, the fear that their motives are less than savory should be weighing on all of us who use the network.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows Facebook’s data practices. They are known to share their user’s data aggregates with advertisers of all stripes. Mark Zuckerberg even encouraged the use of their data in a quote from 2013 saying “...they [Facebook] are helping to build the clearest models of everything there is to know in the world.” Here at the Studio, we experienced first-hand how simple it can be to target specific market segments with a little advertising money as experiments in our own Innovation Labs. The depth of the data scrape obtained by Cambridge Analytica was much deeper.

The data used by Cambridge Analytica was initially obtained by a developer who had created an online quiz app for the Facebook platform. The data for every user—and their immediate friends—who signed up for the app was accessible by the developer per Facebook’s policy. Working against Facebook’s policy, the developer saved the data rather than deleting it. Over time, the developer gathered the user data for over 50 million users, eventually selling the data set to Cambridge Analytica, which, in turn, created voter profiles for right-wing political candidates in the U.S. and U.K.

Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms have been accused of helping spread hoaxes and propaganda for years, and their sales of political advertisements to interests outside of the United States have raised eyebrows. Finally, the social network’s willingness to sell user data to advertisers seems to be boundless, which means more people know more about their users than ever before.

The Future of Facebook

Oddly enough, none of this seems to have sparked a mass exodus from Facebook. One might think, reflecting on the 2010 campaign to quit the network, that we’d see another massive spike in users wondering how to deactivate their accounts—a notoriously difficult and impermanent process. Though a small jump in cancellation interest has occurred since this writing and the company’s value has taken a significant downturn, it is not currently comparable to the organized exodus of 2010.

If no downturn in Facebook popularity occurs in the next week or two, it might still be on the way. The scandals Facebook has found itself wrapped up in the last year reveal a history—a pattern—of disregard for user privacy in favor of profit. Whether they change their policies and, perhaps, leadership, could determine whether they retain users and their privilege of remaining unregulated on the open internet. The truth is, Facebook was a genius idea twisted into something far beyond its humble beginnings. And, though ubiquitous today, the social network could be in for a user hemorrhage soon. It all depends on how much we’re willing to take.