Facebook’s Tale: The Life and Death of Web 2.0 Social Networks

Occupy the Internet

Web 1.0, the world wide web of the 90s, was more like a vast multimedia library. The point of using Web 2.0 websites, on the other hand, slowly shifted toward user-generated content as much as interacting with it and with other creators. One could argue that while Web 1.0 offered one-way access to information, Web 2.0 was more about the exchange of information, or more colloquially—about the conversation.

In this light, social networks are the ultimate form of Web 2.0. Social networks to Web 2.0 were perhaps what churches of yore were to the religion. Not just a place where the entire community congregated, but the very cradle and embodiment of the culture’s core principles. But do they still hold up in the nascent era of Web 3.0?

As a concept social networks were pioneered in earnest by MySpace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004. And while MySpace today is as good as dead, Facebook still dominates the market.

In this article, we will retrace Facebook history as we remember it and make a case of why centralized social networks like Facebook are outdated and do not belong in the future of the Internet.

Someone Came Up With a Brilliant Idea

Everybody knows the story behind the inception of Facebook. Mark, a goofy Harvard undergraduate and a keen coder, loved creating social sites. FaceMash, a site where students would rate each others’ looks and one of Mark’s early experiments, almost got him expelled. Facebook, on the other hand, got instantly popular overnight.

Allegedly, Zuckerberg did not come up with Facebook’s idea by himself but instead borrowed ideas of his friends and fellow Harvard students Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the first Bitcoin billionaires and now owners of Gemini crypto exchange.

While initially Facebook was meant to be a social platform for Harvard students, it’s popularity grew so rapidly that limitations were soon lifted. By 2008 Facebook hit 100 million users, by 2010—500 million.

The Social Network (2010) by Fincher depicts the early history of Facebook as a personal drama. Mark is a controversial figure, but still definitely human. Going forward events around the platform, and the overall change of our web experience, made everything different.

Red Flags

So when exactly did Mark become a bad guy in the public eye? Supposedly on the cusp of 2013 as the platform was inching toward 1 billion users.

In 2012 things were still looking up for Facebook. Zuckerberg, the Elon Musk of his time, held the third most successful IPO in U.S. history, raising more than $18 billion for Facebook. At the same time, Facebook buys Instagram and consolidates its position as THE social network of the decade.

Facebook’s public image started to really fall apart in 2013, when The Guardian and The Washington Post broke the story confirming that the NSA has been collecting information on users of social networks, including Facebook, since 2007. This information included correspondence and data on the physical location and movement of users. At the time, Barack Obama confirmed that such a program existed thus admitting that the U.S. authorities were secretly monitoring social network users.

In August 2013, Facebook published the first report on the amount of personal user information handed to authorities. Only in the first half of 2013, personal data belonging to 38 thousand users was compromised. In around 10% of these instances, Facebook handed information to law enforcement without legal process, thus violating privacy of thousands of users without due process.

“In emergencies, law enforcement may submit requests without legal process. Based on the circumstances, we may voluntarily disclose information to law enforcement where we have a good faith reason to believe that the matter involves imminent risk of serious physical injury or death.”

Facebook had to deal with numerous class-action lawsuits alleging various privacy violations, from tracking web usage to scanning private messages. But one case really drove the message home for the vast majority of users. It was, of course, the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Although the scandal broke in 2018, it was later revealed that Cambridge Analytica has been harvesting personal data from 50 million Facebook profiles without users’ consent for years and used it for political advertising. This was Facebook’s Watergate moment. Beyond a tremendous public image hit and a significant drop in stock price, it changed the public’s outlook on privacy and personal data in general.

At the same time, Facebook got under fire for censorship concerns. Despite insisting that it is not a media company or a publisher for legal reasons, Facebook was indeed caught censoring both the US and foreign politicians. According to various commentators, an attempt to substitute human moderation by algorithms has led to even worse results.

It is no coincidence that unlike The Social Network (2010), The Circle (2017) came as a rude awakening, depicting the man behind the global social network not as a blundering and awkward yet otherwise very human person, but rather as an insidious and power-hungry maniac building a dystopian future.

Facebook Knows It’s Obsolete

For the last two years, user engagement on the platform continues plummeting, which is largely attributed to reputation losses and growing competition. Zuckerberg understands that Facebook is no longer a truly innovative platform and it does not give modern users what they need: stricter privacy, less invasiveness, being able to delete data whenever and for good.

Zuckerberg understands that Facebook is behind the times as he has himself outlined in his long blog last year.

“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever.”

He then talks about how he would like Facebook to head in that direction, but admits that they “don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services.”

Facebook’s most recent push to innovate was shut down by the regulators and looks like it’s out of steam.

Social Networks of Web 3.0?

Centralized social networks were among the absolute best and worst innovative products brought to us by Web 2.0. But Web 3.0 and its drive for decentralization, privacy, and freedom of expression will inevitably blow the old web out of the water.

There may be a long way to go until that happens, but it pays to start investing in the future today. While centralized social media will probably dominate the market for a while, alternative platforms are steadily growing and evolving. In our upcoming articles, we will review some of them.

Our first review will touch upon Steamit and its wayward forks. Stay tuned.

This article is a part of our Occupy the Internet series, where we review the current trends in the nascent decentralized web and cover the burning issues of privacy and censorship.

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