Viewpoint: Delete Facebook? After you...

David Murphy

David Murphy looks at the impact of the #DeleteFacebook campaign on the social network's user numbers

There’s no doubt that Facebook has been hit hard by the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with the #DeleteFacebook hashtag trending, calls for Mark Zuckerberg to testify before a UK Select Committee, and the prospect of a class action brought by three Facebook Messenger users, who say the social network violated their privacy by collecting logs of their phone calls and text messages.

Matters were not helped over the long Easter weekend when a 2016 memo written by Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth, entitled ‘The Ugly Truth’, was obtained by BuzzFeed. In the memo, Bosworth argued that whatever Facebook did in pursuit of user growth and enabling people to connect with each other, was acceptable.

Bosworth wrote: “So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack co-ordinated on our tools. And still we connect people.

“The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned.

“That's why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”

These same sentiments are hinted at in Antonio Garcia Martinez’s book, Chaos Monkeys, which purports to be an expose of the Silicon Valley tech/startup scene, but which spends a lot of time talking about the inner workings of Facebook, where Martinez worked for two years.

In the book Martinez writes: “The reality is that Facebook has been so successful, it’s actually running out of humans on the planet…

“The company can solve this by either making more humans (hard even for Facebook), or connecting what humans there are left on the planet. This is why exists, a vaguely public-spirited and somewhat controversial, campaign by Facebook to wire all of India with free Internet, with regions like Brazil and Africa soon to follow.”

He then talks about Facebook’s plans to fly a fleet of unmanned, wi-fi-enabled aircraft over the developing world to deliver internet access, concluding: “Facebook can’t wait for the developing world to get to First World standards of connectivity, so it must create it for them, using ad revenues in the developed world to subsidise this new air force’s deployment. In time, monetization will follow usage, as it always does. Money follows eyeballs, even if slowly.”

Reputational damage
So there’s a lot of negativity and cynicism towards Facebook, but I wonder if the damage to the company will be anything more than reputational. I had thought that we would have to wait until the 25th of this month, when Facebook releases its Q1 numbers, to see how damaging the #DeleteFacebook campaign has been to its user numbers. But in fishing around for any advance information, I came across a report on The Star quoting figures from marketing consultancy Kepios suggesting that very few people, if any, have deleted Facebook in the last couple of months.  

In the top 10 countries based on Facebook's popularity, the social network saw a growth in the number of monthly active users (MAUs) between January and March 2018 in nine of them, with the tenth – Brazil – remaining static. This despite the fact that, according to social media analytics firm Sysomos, as many as 400,000 tweets containing the #DeleteFacebook hashtag have been posted in the last month.

The Star post offers a couple of reasons for users’ apparent unwillingness to delete Facebook, such as the ability it offers small businesses to reach a wider audience cost effectively.

I think there’s something much more basic at work, however – addiction. Facebook does become a drug, and a hugely addictive one, owing to the variety of content the average user sees on the platform, from different friends with different interests, to closed groups where you can use the power of the crowd to get an answer to almost anything, from who’s doing Twitter’s PR these days to the name of a reliable local plumber who’s available to fix a leak. No wonder Culture Secretary Matt Hancock recently suggested that the Government could impose mandatory limits on the amount of time children are allowed to spend on social media.

Maybe the numbers will prove me wrong but I have a strong suspicion that most Facebook users still don’t realise how much data Facebook holds on them, and most of those who do are prepared to accept it in return for their daily fix.