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Waking up to a world in which Facebook’s emperor has...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Waking up to a world in which Facebook’s emperor has no clothes

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

“Hello literally everyone,” @twitter tweeted on 4 October during *that* outage.

The six hours that Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp went down was a moment in internet history that will be recalled alongside that other famous outage, when BlackBerry went down for three days in 2011.

That catastrophe, which demonstrated how ineffective crisis communications can be just as catastrophic, was the beginning of the end for BlackBerry, the pioneer in mobile email and messaging.

Will Facebook’s massive outage be as catastrophic to its fortunes? Probably not, you might say. Facebook is insanely integrated into our lives and is a gigantic, profit-spewing multinational giant used by 3.5 billion people. It’s at the height of its power.

So was BlackBerry. It was considered indispensable for businesspeople, diplomats and law enforcement agencies. BlackBerries were brilliant for mobile email and introduced the unified inbox long before anyone else did.

But its browser sucked. A problem at a time when the mobile internet had truly started to take off, brought about by the large smartphone screens introduced by Apple with the iPhone in 2007.

With an existential crisis started by the 2011 outage, BlackBerry just could not adapt to the shifting norms of both technology and consumers’ needs and began its downward spiral into oblivion.

By 2016, it was no longer making its own devices and had even adopted Android as its operating system. It began licensing its brand for other phone makers, and this year a Texas start-up was given a licence to make 5G devices.

How the mighty have fallen.

BlackBerry was at the height of its power but failed to evolve. It kept hammering away at the problem with the only tool it had, a hammer. Meanwhile, the world had moved on and hammers (or BlackBerries) were no longer in fashion. Sound familiar?

The major difference is Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder has a mountain of cash to buy up any upstart competitor like WhatsApp or Instagram as a net to catch the youngsters who fled Facebook when their grandparents started hanging out there.

But the social giant is facing a perfect storm right now that history suggests might just be a turning point. After weeks of damning revelations by the Wall Street Journal about how Facebook knew the mental health damage Instagram was doing to teenage girls, it continues to “prioritise profit over safety”. That, a quote by whistle-blower Frances Haugen, sums up the insanity of the surveillance capitalism we live in.

Haugen appeared on investigative TV show 60 Minutes on 3 October, two days before she testified before US lawmakers. She gave frightening insight into the profit-motive of the House that Mark Zuckerberg built.

Even though social media and messaging has become so central to our lives, the tech industry is facing a backlash from consumers, lawmakers, multiple US agencies and even shareholders. Facebook is being sued for “overpaying” $4.9-billion to settle a Federal Trade Commission case so that Zuckerberg himself was not personally liable.

Rarely are the kings of one era the kings of the next.

Like BlackBerry before it, Facebook is facing an existential crisis on many fronts. Its tone-deaf responses to its many crises show that its management only has a hammer when “move fast and break things” has long since lost its spark.

Like BlackBerry before it, Facebook is trapped in its ivory tower and can’t see how deeply flawed and outdated its approach is. Its vast wealth will keep the legal challenges at bay for a few years, but as lawmakers and attorneys-general and the newly reinvigorated FTC keep plugging away, it will lose the public relations war and then the rest.

As Haugen told senators: “Facebook is stuck in a feedback loop that they can’t get out of.” DM168

 

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief of Stuff Studios and publisher of Scrolla.Africa.

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