It looks like dark days in Menlo Park. Facebook had around $37 billion of its market capitalization wiped out Monday, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg taking a $5 billion hit to his own net worth. The company has scheduled an open meeting for all employees on Tuesday to discuss the two words that threaten to topple the tech titan: Cambridge Analytica.
The name of the British research firm will be no stranger to anyone who has followed tech news in the last year or so, but it is only now that the public feeling engendered by the name has shifted from a vague suspicion to outrage, after in-depth reports from The New York Times and The Observer revealed that the shady voter-profiling firm had amassed personal data on over 50 million Facebook users in order to power a platform meant to influence American voters.
After over a decade engaging with Facebook and similar technology handed out to us for free in return for our data, it became easy to just shrug our shoulders about giving away our personal information, ostensibly so that we'd see better advertisements on these services. What's so dangerous about the Cambridge Analytica exposé is how it reveals how the big data harvesting threat isn't about seeing better banner ads, but can actually be exploited to cause real harm and social division.
It's a shame Facebook as a whole didn't do a better job weighing. Last night they threatened to sue the Observer/Guardian to stop this story coming out. Maybe you can explain that one. https://t.co/RwlMeO6bQ7— john mulholland (@jnmulholland) 17 March 2018
Facebook doesn't come off well out of the affair, and initially tried to block The Observer report from seeing the light of day. What we're looking at isn't a hack or data breach. Facebook was already set up to allow anyone to harvest the data at the click of a button and then use it as they wished. Rather than attempt to put restrictions on what user data could be used for, the company looked the other way so long as the money kept flowing.
Now Facebook is under fire from US, UK and EU government authorities for failing to adequately inform and protect its users, and just as well. But as the Zuckerberg empire hemorrhages money and prepares to square off against lawmakers, where does that leave its 2 billion users?
Is this a breach of trust too far?
We've been burned by Facebook before. Aside from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook aggravated many users by buying up WhatsApp and breaking promises not to share user data between the companies. For many, this could really be the last straw.
Ultimately, Facebook draws its power from its users, all of us, who are the platform's product and content producers. While Facebook now faces regulation, a more serious threat could come from users threatening to walk out. And yes, we've seen enough fake dramatic Facebook storm-outs on an individual level, but this is something else.
Facebook is facing its biggest ever backlash, with frustrated users rallying on Twitter under the hashtag #DeleteFacebook and deserting the social network in droves in protest of Facebook’s data and privacy policies. Just when we thought that the notion of private personal data had become old-fashioned, it looks like we may have reached a tipping point.
Scandals aside, has Facebook lost its reason for existence?
Those of us who were early adopters of Facebook have seen the social network and our relationship with it change over time. This morning, Facebook decided to show me a 'memory' from over a decade ago, a picture uploaded when it was basically a platform for college students to joke, flirt and arrange parties. It still had something of the playful, irreverent spirit of the noughties-era net in its DNA. But now, over many years of Facebook feeding, growing, evolving and mutating, it's become quite a different beast.
Facebook isn't a place to express yourself to your friends and peers anymore, instead, it's a platform where you present yourself to the public. Your boss, your parents, your government, your extended family, your clients and customers are all watching. What used to be genuine, if often silly, interactions with friends on the wall has been replaced by a feed of news with endlessly repeating bad faith arguments in the comments section, and lazily shared memes, already vintage by the time they've left Reddit and Twitter.
Facebook no longer captures the young, and because of that, its days were always numbered. But the withdrawal of its early userbase, who, like myself, joined when we were teenagers, could well hasten its downfall.
What the 'memory' from Facebook's algorithms really drove home in my mind was how much I'd already withdrawn my participation. I no longer cared to make personal statements on the platform. I never, ever disclose what's on my mind. I held back from commenting on discussions because I'd become sick of repetitive arguments with strangers. And I'd wised up to the danger of personality tests, quizzes, campaigns and other data harvesting tools.
Since my habits have changed and I no longer supply Facebook with the amount of data I used to, why leave the old information there? Why not withdraw completely? The answer for many of us will be a familiar one: "because everyone else uses it". It seems no one really trusts Facebook, but most just continue to use it reluctantly, out of inertia. But as the backlash grows and alternatives become more attractive, we may eventually reach a critical point where this no longer holds up.
Is it time to #DeleteFacebook? Or can the social media giant be rehabilitated? If Facebook can indeed find a way to tempt people back, it may find that we will not sell ourselves so cheaply next time.
What do you think? Should we all #DeleteFacebook?