Facebook’s Brand

Facebook's annual revenue and net income from 2007 to 2017 (in million U.S. dollars)

When we're hungry, we want to know where there are good places to eat. Whomever gives us that information reliably becomes a go-to. We care about missing appointments, so we use the tool that makes it easy for us. We don't buy smartphones, we buy great pictures and videos of our kids.

    We're loyal only to results. A brand is what people come to expect of a business or organization. In this sense, it's much better to have a good product that is consistent from an organization that doesn't just want to sell us, but is happy to educate us and provide honest service.

    Today The New York Times and Channel4 News have released information that took a joint team at The Guardian one year to investigate, as @Carolecadwalla reported. In How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions, the NYT says:

[Cambridge Analytica] harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016. 

    But it wasn't a breach, it was the culmination of more than a decade spent harvesting data to then make it available to organizations and individuals. The Graph API was the cherry on the top. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rolled out the “Open Graph” at f8 developer conference in 2010. The idea was to put people at the center of the Web.

    People and their data was only part of the equation. The vision was to make it possible for other organizations like Yelp and news sites to provide a portal through which Facebook could exchange more data about small businesses and interest in current events, to make its walled garden more connected.

    It was a path to harvesting a lot of data quickly to support a business model. A short two years later, most 70% of Facebook's revenue was from text and display ads. The social layer on top of its existing media business model was genius, as it allowed the company to harvest personal data on millions of people who willingly or unknowingly shared it on the platform. A lot of sharecropping.

    The Graph API expanded the ability of the social network to exchange data through apps. This capability engaged network effects by allowing people to give away their friends' data as well. The researcher involved in the Cambridge Analytica story used 270,000 survey respondents to gain access to the data of 50 million Facebook users.

    In 2015, Facebook shut down this part of the API. The company's shift towards e-commerce and online marketing became more obvious in 2016. In 2017, Facebook ranked first among social media companies in annual revenue with an accumulated a net income of $15.9 billion. The majority of Facebook revenues are generated through advertising.

    “Making the world more open and connected” was Facebook's brand promise  “social connection,” bring your friends, and make new ones by sharing and liking. But a brand is about what people experience, which is what a business does, not what it says. Page functionality was never in support of businesses and entrepreneurs who wanted to build community, for example.

    Many organizations that wanted to build community to improve how they did marketing and communications by appealing to interested groups, found themselves curating streams for ads. Just like the other channels. To an observer, the plan was always to enroll oodles of people to put their stuff there and charge advertising money to companies in exchange for eyeballs. 

    Social networks and in particular Facebook, were never interested in supporting communities. The business was configured from the get-go to steal the attention and time, in addition to content, data, customers, and are designed to trigger not conversation, but outrage.

    Facebook is not face time, my take has long been to never trust social networks to do the right thing, even when it seems like they will. In fact, Facebook now cites its Terms of Service (TOS) as a way to protect itself by saying Cambridge Analytica bought the data from an academic and allegedly held on to it.

    The big tech companies have every incentive to keep everyone on their platforms and conform to their rules. But then change those rules based on their interests — at the f8 developer conference, Zuckerberg announced Facebook was loosening the rule about storing data in cache more than 24 hours. Which is why we're reading the story we're reading today.

    Facebook's business model is based on user data, that's what's on offer. Every app connected to the social network through the Graph API exchanges data about its users with the platform. Here's how to check which third party apps have access to your data.

    As early as 2011, there were also reports of Facebook tracking every user's move on the web. Facebook introduced the controversial Beacon in 2007. The promise “Making the world more open and connected” created the issue that has become Facebook's actual brand — we don't respect privacy.


[data source, Statista]