Never mind that man behind the privacy curtain.
I’ll never forget a meal I had with a senior executive at Facebook many years ago, back when I was just starting to question the motives of the burgeoning startup’s ambition. I asked whether the company would ever support publishers across the “rest of the web” – perhaps through an advertising system competitive with Google’s AdSense. The executive’s response was startling and immediate. Everything anyone ever needs to do – including publishing – can and should be done on Facebook. The rest of the Internet was a sideshow. It’s just easier if everything is on one platform, I was told. And Facebook’s goal was to be that platform.
Those words still ring in my ears as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the web today. And they certainly should inform our perspective as we continue to digest Facebook’s latest self-involved epiphany.
Last week Mark Zuckerberg declared privacy the new black, and committed his multi-hundred-billion dollar company wholeheartedly in favor of it. Employing the now familiar trope that “people I’ve been talking to have been saying privacy’s a thing they care about,” Facebook’s monarch appeared to be pivoting his entire company around this newfound insight, and much of the press seemed to buy it.
But this isn’t a pivot, it’s a panic born of crisis. Facebook’s core business model has plateaued, and absent new channels into which the company might stuff toxic algorithmic advertising, Zuck and crew have had to find a new cash cow. After all, those record-breaking Wall St. earnings won’t keep writing themselves – not with users leaving the service and regulators sharpening their swords for battle.
So Facebook needs to find a new revenue source, one that’s really, really big, and ideally, one that also manages to solve its lousy image as the lusty barker at the surveillance capitalism carnival.
The company has found its answer in the form of WhatsApp, the famously privacy-loving messaging app which Facebook paid $19 billion to acquire five years ago.
So why WhatsApp, and why now?
- WhatsApp was built on entirely different DNA from Facebook. Its end to end encryption practically screams privacy. Before Zuckerberg’s come to Jesus, Facebook had attempted to turn WhatsApp into another advertising play, which drove WhatsApp’s founders to leave in a very public huff. Since then, WhatsApp has failed to become an advertising channel of any significance. Leveraging WhatsApp’s brand sheen to polish Facebook’s privacy turd is a mad genius move.
- Going five years without figuring out monetization for a $19 billion acquisition is…embarrassing. Now Facebook can answer Wall Street’s incessant questions about WhatsApp’s contribution to the company’s bottom line.
- Of all the tech giants, Facebook is most likely to suffer regulators ire here in the United States, including very loud calls for antitrust action. But by pivoting to privacy first and claiming WhatsApp as its new cornerstone, Facebook now has an excuse to integrate Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook, making a breakup technically and socially challenging, if not impossible.
- Moving the focus of the company from public to private solves — or at least mitigates — Facebook’s intractable First Amendment/public square problems.
- Most importantly, WhatsApp has the potential to realize Facebook’s long sought dream of *becoming* the Internet for billions of customers around the world.
But how, exactly? To answer that question, Facebook had only look to China’s Tencent, which in two short years has turned its wildly popular WeChat service into a revenue geyser, a new kind of platform where advertising represents just a fraction of the business model.
WeChat has become an ecosystem unto itself, an essential service used by nearly two billion customers to pay for just about everything in China. It features millions of “mini programs,” essentially apps built on top of the WeChat service. Tencent is making billions on top of this new ecosystem, taking a small cut of transactions inside its internal “Tenpay” system, nudging tens of millions of users to level up inside its gaming system, and yes, by offering advertising inside its popular “Moments” feed. Tencent even built a new search engine inside WeChat, a “walled garden” version of search that should prove insanely profitable if done right. Oh, and it gets all the data.
Put simply, WeChat is a universe unto itself, a perfect mix of app store, commerce, social, payments, and search. It’s as if the entire Internet was shrunk into one app. Exactly the kind of world Facebook would like to see happen here in the United States.
Only…WeChat evolved in China, where the concept of individual privacy is utterly foreign, where the state has complete control over the levers of the economy, and where Facebook has been banned for years. It’s a stretch to believe that Facebook could mimic Tencent’s meteoric rise here in the US (not to mention Western Europe and the rest of the world), but if there’s any conclusion to be drawn from Zuckerberg’s latest manifesto, it’s that his company is certainly going to try.
Once Facebook has created an integrated WeChat-like platform reaching billions, it’d be a cinch to lure app developers – perhaps by undercutting Apple and Google’s 20-30 percent take rate, for starters. And anyone in the business of selling anything would also rush to the platform, posing an existential threat to Amazon’s portal-like model of e-commerce dominance. An obvious step would be to build search to unite it all, a necessary move that would dramatically undercut Google’s control of that market as well. The only safe place to be in this scenario seems to be Apple’s hardware business – except that company is itself in the midst of a pivot to services, exactly the kind of services that a Facebook WeChat clone will challenge.
So, to summarize: By declaring “private conversations” as its new business model, Facebook can undermine the app store model driving all of mobile, unseat Amazon as the king of e-commerce, hollow out Google’s control of search, nip Apple’s transition to services in the bud, take a vig on every transaction across its ecosystem, and insinuate itself into the private, commercial, and public lives of every citizen on the Internet. If the company pulls this off – and yes, that’s a big if – we’ll look back on the past ten years, replete with all our fears of the social media’s dominance in our lives, as positively quaint in comparison.
Never mind that man behind that curtain, folks.