Mark Zuckerberg's tech empire has a long history of using centralized systems to hurt users. Now it's trying to join Web3.
The future of how we socialize online is being defined as we speak, and it’s far too important to leave things to the likes of Meta and other mega social companies. Just a surface-level look at Meta’s history is enough to understand its tendency to severely miss the mark.
Some companies like to use Web3 principles to right the wrongs of Web2. And as a poster child for large, centralized organizations, Meta offers us some of the most useful examples of those wrongs.
Let’s touch on three times that Meta fell short of building the future of online social experiences.
It limited Open Graph
In 2010, Meta — still operating as Facebook at the time — released its “Open Graph” protocol, providing developers with a network of links between friends in order to encourage other people to take up its apps. It was a way for users to carry their Facebook identities from app to app, making it easy for developers to give those users a personalized experience. However, a few years later, the company shifted gears to become ruthless in cutting off friends, its newsfeed and other data access for developers.
The primary reason for this was to limit competition, as Facebook was worried about people reverse-engineering its social graphs and creating their own versions of Facebook. So, it ended up killing a product that many in the community nowadays call essential. It was ahead of its time — until it stopped making business sense.
Facebook felt that it was arming its competitors by giving them this data, and with its centralized power, Facebook had the unilateral ability to dramatically cut off this access.
It took the @Metaverse Instagram handle from the user who registered it
Online social identities are of great importance to users — they represent who you are and bear the weight of your effort and time spent online. So, when Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, getting a new logo and image, a situation with social media handles presented an unanticipated problem.
An active Instagram user who had already registered @metaverse as her username was already regularly sharing photos from that handle. Then, without warning, Meta blocked her account. When that story came to light, it resulted in some predictably negative press for the social media giant.
Transparency and ownership are core values of the emergent decentralized paradigm. Social platforms of the future will be designed in such a way that abuse of power is either operationally impossible or super easy to identify. What’s yours will be yours, and no software or administrator will be able to change it manually.
In case you needed a reminder, Facebook spent much of the 2010s collecting the personal data of millions of its users on behalf of British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. That data was predominantly used for political advertising with user consent, and it was a defining scandal within the company’s history.
And despite being major news at the time, it doesn’t appear to have changed anything about how the company operates or how users could be protected. When NPR followed up on the story in 2021, it found that Facebook didn’t take responsibility for its behavior, nor did consumers see any reform as a result.
If anything, the company’s reckless actions only proved the need for an internet layer of self-sovereign identity and access controls. More and more people are waking up to the importance of identity on the internet, and that’s something blockchain is perfectly tailored to address. Meta’s history also provides a textbook example of surveillance capitalism, which should offend any internet user right to their core.
We’ve now surfaced three well-documented incidents demonstrating that older generations of mega social platforms and the data business model they represent can’t be trusted to bring about a mature ecosystem for the internet-using public.
Those mega platforms cast a long, dark shadow over social media overall, but the future of the space is bright. The crypto explosion over the past 10 years makes it clear that large, centralized entities don’t hold the same influence they used to.
What can we do about it?
The solution to Meta rests with all of us. The future of the internet is a collaborative effort of many different projects, developers and sovereignty-minded users.
The stage is set for small, nimble next-generation companies to radically redefine how people express their identity and interact with connections online. The smaller, committed teams will be focused on making an impact and building upon each other, as opposed to bolstering existing revenue.
These new companies have the opportunity to build the primitives for a decentralized society to emerge from the bottom up. They can create a standard and infrastructure for people to accrue and own their status and social capital, both within and across diverse social networks. They can build trust into the fabric of their social networks and enable truly meaningful connections and better discoverability. In doing so, they can create a more decentralized, open, resilient internet for everyone.
The events of older-generation firms also underline the importance of having a protocol for the internet that is owned by no one and can’t be centrally controlled. A protocol is needed to help coordinate these efforts, set standards for social data interoperability, provide a universal data storage solution that is both decentralized and economically scalable, and enable application builders to quickly tap into existing resources.
Such a protocol would be a powerful tool to fight back against the surveillance capitalism of companies like Meta. It would give users full control over their data and identity, and make it much harder for bad actors to abuse personal data.
But this is no small feat. The next web is a huge undertaking that will require the commitment of many different people and organizations. It will be an unprecedented manifestation of human “scenius,” a concentrated and voluntarily orchestrated collective brilliance.
The good news is that the general ethos of the web may have fundamentally changed. Composability and interoperability are more than technical designs — they are also intrinsic value propositions we genuinely hold up to and share with others to work together. This is a demand that we must meet if we want to build a better future for the internet.
The consequences of inaction
Inaction is also a form of action. The consequences of not doing anything about the problems posed by Meta are clear. Your digital identity will never truly be yours and will always be at risk of being moderated, altered or even obliterated. Given that we are increasingly integrating our physical life with the digital, blurring the lines between the two and posting more personal and collective value in the digital, this danger looms darker and bigger.
In a larger picture, we’ll be sliding into a society of total surveillance capitalism, where not only will everyone lose control of their data and identity, but their data will be further commercialized to turn users into products who gradually lose sight of the problem and the will of action. A total system driven by profit diminishes the room for any discussions or endeavors regarding human agency and the meaningful social connections of human collectives.
We need to take action now to build a better future for the internet and human society at large. The next web provides us with an opportunity to do things differently, and we, together, must seize it.