On the surface, Facebook is looking more and more like a digital death star, a vehicle with far too much power to control our thoughts and lives.
But, look again, and Facebook, even at the apex of its influence, may be doomed to failure. That is because, no matter how far its reach extends today, Facebook, like MySpace or LotusNotes, Wang Labs or countless juggernauts of the internet age, will be consigned to the scrap heap of history if users defect in droves from its badly flawed and unappealing architecture.
That’s why I think that in order to preserve itself, Facebook must adopt a user’s Bill of Rights and provide a mechanism to make sure those rights are enforced. Here’s what I would like to see:
• If you create content, you own it. You have a unilateral right to retrieve your posts, comments, photo albums, likes and emojis anytime you want and remove them from our architecture. If you die, your estate owns the content.
• Advertising will be transparent. We’ll tell you on a regular basis which ads have been posted to your page and news feed and give you the opportunity to block advertisements you don’t want to see in the future.
• Analytics require accountability. If someone uses our research in any way that sweeps your page into a data mining effort, we will let you know who did it. We will let you opt out of being part of future data mining efforts.
• News organizations will be compensated for their work. If a Facebook user posts news content to a feed, we’ll compensate the publisher for his or her work. Terms to be mutually agreed.
• We’ll act like a publisher in the gatekeeper role. We’ll develop a team of experts, provide editorial standards and move obscene or offensive content off our web site. We won’t rely on bots to do that – we’ll employ real people and adhere to some worldwide standards of basic decency.
• We’ll fence off our free-wheeling subsidiaries and let you choose. We won’t create confusion between Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. We’ll create arms-length relationships between these platforms and stop annoying you by encouraging you to chase the shiny new object. If any one of them gets too big — and Instagram already has — we’ll sell it off.
Not so many years ago, I read the autobiography of Thomas Watson, Jr. the longtime CEO of IBM and the company’s second president.
The message of his work was that IBM required constant reinvention if it was going to succeed. Even in the 1960s and ’70s, technology was changing fast enough to challenge incumbents’ very survival. And often the need for the next reinvention arrived just as a product — punch card readers, mainframe computers — was reaching its peak of popularity.
Facebook now faces that same sort of survival threat — a threat that’s echoed in its staggering stock price, headlines about 50 million users having their data abused in service to Cambridge Analytica, an FTC investigation and the departure of key data security executives.
The bottom line is that the dark overlords of the Zuckerberg empire are doomed to fail if customers revolt. And customers are not going to sit idly back and be treated like peasants when they are the ones on whom Facebook depends for all of its revenue.
Perhaps the Cambridge Analytica breach is enough to explode the Facebook mystique and send its customers scurrying back to plain old email to connect with family and to LinkedIn for professional connections. Perhaps the revelations of the FTC probe or good old-fashioned news reporting will bring the truth out.
Whatever the case, the revolt of the peasants has begun. Perhaps only a users’ Bill of Rights can restore the most essential thing that Facebook has lost – trust.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]