Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:
Facebook was founded 12 years ago by you (at the age of 19). In that time, you have grown the company from zero worth to the sixth-highest valued company in the world. Facebook alone accounts for the largest share of social networking on smartphones, and its various apps account for 30 percent of mobile internet usage. The Economist put you on a recent cover in an imperial Roman context with imperial ambitions. Rome remade the Western world.
Social media has remade much of our interconnected world. Facebook—imperial ambition or not—is rapidly advancing beyond the developed world to the four corners of humanity. This vision—some would say drive—for dominance may help explain why Facebook is with us while others like Friendster and Myspace are not.
When Facebook has not been able to win a battle, it has purchased the opposition. It had no problem buying a leading company in virtual reality (Oculus). It spent $23 billion acquiring the photo-sharing site Instagram and WhatsApp, a messaging service. The Facebook expansion into messaging, other communication platforms and virtual reality makes it clear that this “Roman” intends to make it the universal language and religion for all of humanity.
And in fact, social media has changed the face of our culture and polity. Take the example of newspapers. A reader of this column certainly has noticed how thin newspapers have become, both in size and coverage. In her farewell column last April, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, outlined the challenges newspapers face from social media, mentioning Facebook specifically. Speed kills, as she noted, and it may kill journalistic credibility and ethics.
And it may kill politics as we know it. Social media, including Twitter and YouTube, allow political campaigns and politicians to speak directly to voters. More important, voters and potential voters can speak directly with politicians. None of this communication goes through paid advertising or earned media. It is commonplace for politicians at all levels to declare their campaigns with a video on YouTube, which is virtually free.
And a high-water mark in the current presidential circus was reached when Jeb Bush announced his support for Sen. Ted Cruz with a 218-word posting on Facebook. Mr. Bush has made no public appearance, no TV-on-the-stage endorsement of Mr. Cruz, and has made it clear he does not plan to attend the Republican National Convention. Facebook, apparently, is an adequate substitute for all the traditional trappings of national politics.
And these non-traditional campaigns can now go viral. Twitter and Facebook have become the main instrument in organizing. People who already share the same views can reinforce those views by sharing them with others who can then “share” on Facebook or retweet on Twitter. Donald Trump is the king of Twitter.
Fundraising has been dramatically affected by social media. The ability to use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to reach out to millions of supporters has allowed campaigns such as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ to raise tens of millions of dollars at very low cost, reaching supporters whom he might not have reached through traditional means. It was President Obama who was the first politician to use the power of social media during his two successful campaigns. Social media energizes a more youthful demographic. We see that phenomena playing out in the current democratic primary fight between Sen. Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton.
Let me give you an example of the demographic difference created by social media. A recent analysis in the Harvard Business Review by Douglas Holt measured a subscriber’s success on YouTube channels by comparing corporate brands with youth crowd cultures. The traditional corporate brands of McDonald’s or Coke did not break the top 1,000 YouTube channels (by subscribers). YouTube’s greatest attraction to date is PewDiePie, a young Swedish digerati who features his own voiceover commentary on the video games that he plays. According to Harvard Business Review¸ by January 2016, his site had racked up nearly 11 billion views and his YouTube channel had more than 41 million subscribers. Clearly a great deal is going on not visible to many of the rest of us.
And some of what is not visible to the rest of us is the government’s effort to use all of that rich interactive data for purposes that are allegedly in the national interest. The Carnivore program and the other revelations by Edward Snowden was an early hint. Apple has recently sued the government in its effort to prevent law enforcement unlocking of iPhones.
Government snooping is not limited to iPhones. The Department of Justice has sought permission to search a Hotmail account, a request Microsoft has resisted. In that lawsuit, it came to light that over the past 18 months, federal courts have issued at least 2,600 secrecy orders that prohibit Microsoft from telling an individual target of the government’s actions. The extent of this snooping is unknown because, in most cases, the recipient of the warrant is prohibited by threat of felony prosecution from telling the target of the government’s action.
So Mr. Zuckerberg, your quest for pax Facebookium will meet with governmental resistance. More important, your imperial ambition will run directly into the imperial ambition of Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other enterprises that will spring up in the next 12 years. I have ridden on roads built by the Romans 2,000 years ago, but I don’t think my Facebook page will last that long.
Vance K. Opperman
Neither Friend nor Follower
Vance K. Opperman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.