Facebook is building a private version of the internet. While that may be good for personal privacy, it’s a threat to public conversation.
Facebook’s big play at its F8 developer conference this year was privacy.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted in a keynote speech that it’s an area where the social media firm has a lousy reputation. He went as far as trying to make a joke of the issue. It bombed.
Personal privacy and security strikes at the core of Facebook’s proposition. If users don’t trust the social media platform to manage their data, growth and engagement will stall and ad revenue will follow.
The warning signs are clear for Facebook. The past two years have seen huge growth in private messaging using platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Instagram Messenger and WhatsApp. It’s no coincidence that these services are all owned by Facebook.
There’s also been a related shift to transitory forms of content that are deleted once they’ve been viewed or after a predefined period. Snap, Facebook Stories and Instagram Stories are all examples of this format. Again, note Facebook’s ownership. Snap is the only independent service.
Zuckerberg’s pitch to rebuild trust between his organisation and its users is to lock down privacy. In the future posts on the network will be private by default and shared only with an immediate network of friends or group.
Private spaces on the internet are important to enable people to talk about personal and sensitive issues. But the sheer scale of Facebook with its two billion users effectively creates a private internet within the internet. It’s a bad thing for democracy and society. It erodes the ability to share stories, participate in public conversations, form communities and develop knowledge.
“The web is a social space. We’re on the web so that we can talk with other people about things that matter to us and do so in our own voice.” said David Weinberger, author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, speaking after receiving the CIPR’s President’s Medal in 2018.
Jeff Jarvis author of Public Parts and a journalism professor at the City of New York University argues that the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements would not have emerged from a private version of Facebook. It’s a point well made.
Black Lives Matter is an international movement which began within the African American community. It began with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of African American teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
The Me Too movement had a similar genesis. It started in October 2017 as the #MeToo hashtag on social media to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. It followed sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Both Black Live Matters and Me Too emerged from public conversations on the internet. Countless other campaigns and scandals have started in this way as like minded people have gathered via social media on public spaces on the internet.
Conversations will still be shared among personal networks and groups, but they’ll move a lot slower and there’s no longer any guarantee that they’ll breakthrough to the public consciousness. Whatever your view of personal privacy it’s hard to argue that this is a good thing.