March 26, 2019

The Claustrophobia of Facebook’s Private “Living Room”

“Ten years ago, close observers of Facebook noticed a change in the one-line mission statement that the company circulated on campus and beyond. The network, which had previously limited its scope to the local sphere—“the people around you,” in the language of a tagline the previous year—abruptly moved to reach its arms around the planet. “Facebook gives people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” the new version said. The scaling up was considerable, a bit like the difference between hosting thirty people for Thanksgiving dinner and trying to feed turkey to the whole world. But for a good long while its promise seemed possible. In 2011, Facebook, along with other social networks, became an enabling technology of the Arab Spring. By 2013, four years after the wider mission statement circulated, the platform’s monthly active users had more than quadrupled. At some point, it was discovered that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chairman and C.E.O., was going around with the “open and connected” phrase emblazoned on the inside of his hoodie, and who could blame him for that quiet mark of pride? It is one thing to talk about openness and connection, another to make real strides in bringing the world close.

That era, and that dream, just ended. For months, there have been rumors of Facebook preparing a major “pivot” toward messenger services. On Wednesday, in a blog post, Zuckerberg officially called the turn. “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure,” he wrote. Facebook, from now on, will begin moving away from the sorts of functions that most everyday users associate with it: publishing widely shared posts and visibly cementing contact with friends, passing acquaintances, chatty academics, classmates not contacted in twenty years, and weirdos with a point of view—connections that Zuckerberg cast as the domain of “public social networks.” Instead, he explained in his announcement, the company would present a “simpler platform” oriented toward sharing information privately with designated recipients. “Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square,” he wrote. “But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room.”

The turn marks the company’s largest mission change in a decade, strategically on scale with I.B.M. announcing, in 2005, that it would stop selling personal computers. But the Facebook shift is far more influential, because, unlike I.B.M.’s home tech, the network has been used by sixty-eight per cent of adults in the United States. Zuckerberg envisioned bringing Facebook’s messaging service together with those of Instagram and WhatsApp, which it also owns, creating a single point-to-point communications network largely hidden from public view. Under this new model, the value and defining use of Facebook would be the online infrastructure that it has assembled, not the stage that it provides. Zuckerberg emphasized the new “private” platform’s potential for commerce. “You can imagine many simple experiences,” he wrote. “A person discovers a business on Instagram and easily transitions to their preferred messaging app for secure payments and customer support.””

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