Sharing profitability with users may be the only way forward for Facebook

    If Facebook wants to maintain its status as the world’s biggest social media network it will need to rebuild trust, yes, but more importantly it will need to share a piece of the pie.

    Facebook has an identity crisis: is it a platform or a publisher? 

    For many people, Facebook is their primary news source. For the same people though, it is also a platform, through which they connect with family and friends, find reviews for restaurants and even buy or sell goods. For more than half of all Indonesians, Nigerians, Indians and Brazilians, it is the internet itself.

    Facebook is many things to more than 2 billion people – however, its growth is slowing. For the first time ever, it reported a decrease in the numbers of daily active users in the US & Canada region in 2017 Q4.

    The slowdown could be due to the changes introduced in 2017 to News Feed, Facebook’s most lucrative product, which changed the type of content shown to users, showing less viral videos that were likely to increase time spent on Facebook.

    Facebook also announced that they would only promote content from trustworthy publishers, leading to a jump in the stock prices of media companies such as News Corp and the New York Times. But there is still time before these strategies bear fruit, and investors have decided— for now—to stay put.

    In the tech world, however, a company’s valuation is based on how the company will do in the future, given its current state and trajectory. At this point, it looks like Facebook is no longer ‘cool’ to use, as more teenagers – who are the future, literally – in the US and UK are leaving in high numbers.

    Facebook can, on the other hand, benefit from its gigantic international audiences: as of January 2018, India, Brazil and Indonesia alone had more than 500 million Facebook users. But here again, Facebook’s future is vulnerable, as foreign governments, along with companies, are beginning to worry about threats to national security, given the disastrous Facebook-Cambridge Analytica debacle.

    Turkey, with its 51 million Facebook users, has already developed an alternative search engine. China never even let Facebook in.

    The question remains: how does Facebook protect itself…from itself?

    It appears that its own ad-driven business model, resulting in an insatiable appetite for users’ time and data without any consideration for societal costs, is going to be its Achilles’ Heel.

    Do we need Facebook?

    Facebook, as it is, does have its benefits though. It enables global economic activity by helping to unlock new opportunities through connecting people and businesses, lowering barriers to marketing, and stimulating innovation. 

    According to a Deloitte report, the ‘Facebook Economy’ resulted in global economic activity worth $227 billion and supported more than 4.5 million jobs in 2014 alone.

    Additionally, social movements, such as the Women’s March held one day afer the inauguration of Donald Trump, are arguably more powerful today than they used to be because of Facebook.

    Such a powerful platform took time and effort to develop, and no alternatives – with the same level of popularity – exist. Even if a more ethical alternative came into being right now, it will take a very long time to reach the scale at which Facebook has achieved user buy-in. It is important that the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater.

    Facebook instinctively knows that its users’ “wellbeing” (read: engagement) is the currency that can sustain its continued growth, and is the right direction to take. However, its attempts to help users ‘spend more time meaningfully’ by using it as a platform to build and maintain social connections, feels like an attempt to fit into a dress that it outgrew five years ago.

    A strategy that seems old, and at worst, painfully earnest and saccharine sweet –  probably turns off many users (like me). Before that happens, Facebook needs to, yes, definitely go back to its roots, but in a stronger manner.

    Without taking responsibility for all content on the platform, Facebook can never truly counter fake news. Without countering fake news, they will never be bona fide publisher.

    Instead of trying to be something they are not capable of taking responsibility for (imagine monitoring and editing all content produced all day every day by all 2.2 billion users on Facebook), they should instead focus on what they are truly the best at: being a platform.

    They can take it to the next level by allowing users to rent out their data to advertisers for a limited time, after which it self-destructs.

    This is not an entirely new idea. Airbnb and Uber Technologies, part of the Sharing Economy, are already doing it, enabling users to rent out their homes and their cars, respectively. This is more sustainable than following a freemium pricing strategy – offering ‘premium’ features at a price – because that risks many users quitting or not upgrading, resulting in a drop in advertisement revenue. 

    Besides, it’s hard to determine what features would be included in the upgraded (paid) version (capping number of friends one can have? Limiting number of status updates? All these lead to less user engagement, an anathema for Facebook).

    Steem’, a blockchain-based rewards platform for publishers to monetize content and grow community is already betting on people creating social data if they can profit from it.

    In the Art of War, Sun Tzu writes ‘in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity’. Facebook has the chance, once again, to make waves.

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