Here’s a question: could you quit Facebook tomorrow?
Maybe you could. Maybe you already have. Maybe you’re secretly longing to, but worry you’ll miss how easy it is to stay in touch with relatives and old friends. Or maybe the very thought of giving up your daily dose of dog snaps and three-month-old memes makes you break out in a cold sweat.
But even if you could say goodbye to the blue behemoth, could you then also quit Instagram? Could you quit WhatsApp too? Would you be happy to never use Oculus, even as the VR market evolves? The reality is that when we’re talking about tech giants, quitting a single platform is like trying to boycott McDonalds whilst continuing to shop at Londis and buy Krispy Kreme donuts. Facebook’s aggressive acquisition of small tech businesses and platforms means total non-participation is difficult, especially in the messaging space — if not on WhatApp or Messenger, how are you even talking to anyone?
This monopolisation of the communication space is set to continue with Facebook’s attack on Slack, titled Workplace. If everything goes the way they want it to, soon you might not be physically able to resist the F word — you’re going to get Zucked in the eye all day, every day. Workplace is basically souped-up Slack, with familiar Facebook features such as live video and full integration with Salesforce and Google’s suite of apps. If you work for Starbucks, Delta, Lyft, Spotify, Heineken or Walmart (the largest private employer in the world) then you might be using Workforce already, or in the near future — all of these companies have signed up for the platform, along with 30,000 others.
The question any innovation business will be asking is: where do we draw the line between innovation and monopoly? Is Workplace a genuine innovation, or a series of tweaks that mostly allows Facebook to step on the toes of its competitors, more reminiscent of aggressive old-school corporations than a Silicon Valley start-up?
Silicon Valley culture has always welcomed competition, but there’s also a sense that innovation comes first, and that an environment that allows the development of world-changing products is the most important product of all. This is now perhaps an outmoded ideal, a myth we attach to supposed Bay Area utopianists; as noted in Wired, “investors grumble that they won’t invest in social media companies any more. There will never be another WhatsApp, they argue, because Facebook will buy it or bury it before it’s able to get to that size.” WhatsApp — and, famously, Snapchat — are perfect examples of that tiny spark of an idea converted into a billion-dollar unicorn, and stamping that spark out can hardly be conducive to truly challenging thinking.
Of course, you can overstate the importance of the start-up narrative. Business is still business, and the success stories are only a tiny percentage of the overall picture. Plus, Facebook’s ubiquity puts them in a unique position to experiment — they have endless money, resources and data to do so. And you only have to take a quick glance at Facebook’s recently proposed changes to their News Feed feature that they aren’t exactly stuck in the mud — for better or worse, they’ll happily shake up their core offering in some pretty radical ways, even if it falls a long way short of what we at Fearlessly Frank would consider innovation. (And even if it’s designed to please investors, not users.) We’re no fans of monopoly, especially if it squeezes out those all-important cultures and environments in which change and radical thinking can emerge, but compared to some of Facebook’s behaviours there are probably greater things to worry about than Workplace. Developing a workable, popular platform that people want to use is on the benign end of corporate power-abuse.
Still, there’s no denying that it remains symptomatic of Facebook’s highly acquisitive mentality, which flies in the face of Silicon Valley’s usual beatific approach to hyper-capitalism. It’s an ambivalent argument but, ultimately, we’ve got a responsibility to vote with our feet. As long as we keep ravenously devouring Facebook products, we help justify their aggressive approach. Silicon Valley tech developers may be high-minded idealists, but as consumers we’re surprisingly suggestible to conveniences, and the yearly novelties of iterative tech releases. If we really care about the bounties of true innovation, those of us in the know — which now includes everybody who has read this article — should seriously rethink our relationship with large new-media companies. After all, when Tesco, McDonalds and other physical chains overstep the mark, we usually find people willing to fight against them — so far, that’s what’s largely missing from online culture.
This is especially important now, because if left unchecked Facebook will continue to devour the underdogs, thus defining how new tech makes it to market, and who gets to control the all-powerful tools that result from radical innovation. Facebook have already proved plenty of times that the users aren’t what matters most. If we want emergent technologies to live and breathe — and to benefit us, not venture capitalists — then there’s a strong argument for changing how we think about tech monopoly. We may find that saying no to minor conveniences now — whether its integrated video-chat in the workplace or some new lazy new iPhone edition that collates your intimate pictures using AI — might help us recapture the spirit of real change, by turning us from cosseted consumers back into the sceptics we once were. Convenience has desensitised us, but we used to be genuinely scared of the internet. It was the necessity of winning us over that gave birth to all that invention. To recapture that spirit, we don’t have to go back to being scared; we do have to start getting smart.