How Facebook's blue pill became a digital Frankenstein
Zuckerberg has dreamt about building the ultimate Matrix for humankind, but all he got was Tiksnaptube… for now
Of all the insane conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, my favourite is the one that claims coronavirus is just a ploy to use a vaccine developed in collaboration with — drum roll — Bill Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) in order to insert a “digital certificate” in every human being. There’s more: this “digital certificate” is supposedly — one more — the mark of the beast (yes, that beast) and it will be used for DNA harvesting. Better the devil you know than the DNA you don’t, I guess.
It is fascinating, truly. But it could be even wittier.
Since the beginning of the decade, when Facebook had almost one billion users, Mark Zuckerberg has planned to build a fully operational virtual world with all those people trapped in it (or “living in harmony”, if you may). It was intended to be some sort of blue Matrix in which the supreme power would be lodged in his own hands, of course, and the only pill available would be, well, the blue one. That’s what Internet.Org, Spaces, Oculus, Watch and, more recently, Libra are about: to build an entire ecosystem capable of offering free internet access, user-friendly virtual reality, addictive video experiences and easy financial transactions, all at once.
It could have worked, but Zuckerberg’s master plan flopped. I would love to put the blame on Facebook’s recurring role in spreading misleading content and the company’s habit of abdicating responsibility (I really would love to, that’s kind of my thing), but that’s not the reason the plan failed.
As a matter of fact, let’s briefly put aside Facebook’s woeful inability to manage fake news, misinformation and hate speech on the platform. Yes, I know, it’s a cumulative disaster in ways Zuckerberg will never comprehend, but that wasn’t his only problem. That wasn’t even his worst problem. In this Matrix debacle, Zuckerberg has failed in his own game.
In 2012, when Facebook’s CEO decided to buy Instagram for $1 billion, his concerns were made quite clear: “If they (Instagram) grow to a large scale they could be very disruptive to us”, Zuckerberg wrote. “We’re vulnerable in mobile”, he stated.
These thoughts became public last July when emails between him and David Ebersman (his chief financial officer) were revealed during a hearing on antitrust issues. Back then, tech “experts” focused on Zuckerberg’s attempts to neutralize competition, which is obvious. But the real gem was: eight years ago, when the world was shifting to mobile-first — and later to mobile-only — he already knew that Facebook’s experience was a mobile tragedy (truth be told, it still is — buying Instagram couldn’t fix that).
Ultimately, Instagram (which turns 10 today) paid for itself. It brought in $20 billion in advertising revenue last year alone, and it has indeed neutralized competition — not only its own, but also Snapchat’s, notably by introducing Stories in 2016.
The thing is, since none of the 50,000 Facebook employees managed to fix the mobile “vulnerability” mentioned by the boss eight years ago, Instagram became a digital Frankenstein, haphazardly stitching together features and ideas from other apps and platforms. This process began four years ago with Stories, progressed with IGTV in 2018, and finally culminated last August with Reels. I know Instagram is everything but a failure: its business model is extremely profitable and its user base grows every year. However, let’s face it: some of its new tricks were belittled, others got lost in the app’s myriad of features, and the rest went into obscurity — IGTV being the most obvious case.
To make matters worse, Facebook’s ill-fated attempt to gain the upper hand over YouTube with Facebook Watch, introduced in 2017, never took off because the platform suffers from the same problems as most Instagram features: a lack of personality. Watch is only accessible as a tab on the Facebook menu, which makes zero sense. Plus, there’s no separate app — mobile or not — , and even in 2020 most people still have no idea what Facebook Watch is or how to access its content. “It’s really confusing”, wrote actress Jessica Biel, who stars in a Watch series that you have probably never even heard of.
Here’s a scientific fact I made up on my way to this paragraph: there’s a 97% chance that the next “big” move for Watch will be some “clever” integration with — what? no way! — Instagram (which would also mean the end of IGTV). DM me if you want to take that bet.
It’s interesting to observe how the cambridge-analytica-data-harvesting-fake-news scandal has acted as a massive hammer on Facebook’s credibility, yet it hasn’t played a crucial role in interrupting this Enter the Matrix fantasy. The real “bad actors” (I know, I’m having a good day today) weren’t born from “foreign” accidents or unforeseen events; they were a consequence of lousy corporate decisions, which must have been devastating for Zuckerberg. “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”, Mark, you know that.
Bonus tip, by the way: if you’re launching a killer product, and all the reviews say that it has a bunch of pros but the biggest con is your very own brand, that should raise (and wave and burn) a massive red flag, dude.
I understand that Facebook’s failure to build a virtual universe is a relief, considering its fame (and stubbornness), but can we all agree that it would have produced a much more captivating conspiracy theory related to COVID-19? Here it goes:
Coronavirus is a two-step ruse: first, it will keep people trapped inside Zuckerberg’s blue Matrix for over a year, multiplying the company’s stock value. Then, Facebook will manipulate the vaccine to insert a “digital certificate” into each user in order to conduct data harvesting on disturbing levels…
Ok, never mind. Upon further consideration, I think I’ll switch back to the “mark of the beast” storyline… less credible stuff, but definitely much, much safer.