Facebook ($FB) has time and time again made clear that their company’s directive is to make the world more “open” and “connected.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated as much in an open letter on February 19 announcing the $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp. But despite this mantra, Facebook’s platform changes indicate the company is doing everything they can to move social media in the exact opposite direction. That is, that the future of social media isn’t in complete singular online transparency, but in niche, tightly controlled privacy.
From Public to Semi-Public to Private
While Google Plus has largely disappointed, one thing they did discover early on was that people don’t want to necessarily share everything with every type of acquaintance at the same time. Google Plus offered the ability to categorize online friends, and control how and with whom content was shared. This stood in stark contrast to Facebook, who pushed a model built on the idea that identity is monolith, and thus what information can be shared with one should be shared with the whole world.
Enter Snapchat. Like Facebook, Snapchat was invented by a young man while he was still in college. The similarities pretty much end there. While Facebook promoted openness and permanence, Snapchat offered secrecy and ethereality. Snapchats’ text-message/photos, or “snaps,” are only sent to intended recipients, and disappear forever after 10 seconds. And judging by its wild popularity, Snapchat is the kind of social media people want.
If You Can't Acquire 'Em, Join 'Em
Snapchat famously spurned a buyout offer from Facebook, and has been steadily building its base since. Facebook, rather than double down on their antithetical ethos to fight this nascent competitor, is becoming more like them.
In March Facebook began making it easier to personally select with whom photos are shared after they are uploaded onto the site. Additionally, Facebook now alerts users who have their default setting set on “public” who might not be aware that they are sharing their content with the entire world, and asks if they’d like to restrict their sharing to a more select group.
In Facebook of old, the company thought that was the entire point. Do whatever necessary to get users to share their content freely. If everyone’s information is turned out to the world, and made easily searchable via Facebook Graph, users will have more content to sift through, and thus stay on the site longer, to the delight of advertisers.
A Company More Open to Profits
But a longer length of time on the site for some users is a moot point if more users are leaving the service entirely. Indeed, Facebook has experienced a significant stagnation in the developed world, and as they search for new users in emerging markets, they are having to adapt.
And adapting means changing their core philosophy. They’re making it easier to hide content on Facebook. They’re doubling down on WhatsApp, a service that both broadens their reach into emerging markets while promoting a product that encourages direct messaging in lieu of the open, bulletin-board style “Walls” Facebook was built on.
It’s really just a matter of revenue. Zuckerberg can talk about openness, but if users across the world have grown weary of it, as a public company Facebook will too.
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