Users threaten to quit over Zuckerberg’s latest money-making ad plan
Published time: 28 May, 2019 16:00Edited time: 29 May, 2019 08:24
Mark Zuckerberg talks a big game when it comes to giving users what they want and serving the ‘community’ — but when push comes to shove, the Facebook CEO always follows the dollar signs in his eyes over user satisfaction.
When Facebook bought WhatsApp for a cool $19 billion in 2014, Zuckerberg was acquiring a company that had famously promised never to introduce advertising or gather massive amounts of data from its users. “Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product,”the company wrote in a blog post, declaring that it didn’t want WhatsApp to become “just another ad clearinghouse.”
That all ended when Zuckerberg got his hands on the messaging app and set the ball rolling on ad-based monetization plans. The change of course led to internal spats which went public when WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton (who quit Facebook suddenly in 2017) gave an interview to Forbes, lashing out at Zuckerberg and his sidekick COO Sheryl Sandberg over their determination to squeeze as much cash out of the app as possible while abandoning its core founding principles. Facebook’s attitude was “if it made us a buck, we’d do it,” Acton said.
Now, users are threatening to delete their WhatsApp accounts, and switch to a rival service such as Telegram or Signal, after Facebook confirmed the plans and released some rather unpalatable sample images of how exactly ads will appear on the messaging platform. The ads are expected to appear in the app’s ‘Status’ section at some point in 2020 — and pretty much no one is happy about it.
Squabbles between Facebook executives and the founders of apps it acquires seem to have become something of a trend. Shortly before Acton gave his scathing interview to Forbes, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger announced they were leaving the company following reports that they had also had disagreements with Zuckerberg. Quitting, the pair said they wanted to “explore our curiosity and creativity again” — perhaps a sly dig at Facebook’s laser focus on money-making above all else.
It’s not just the inconvenience that users are worried about either. There are concerns that the new feature could undermine user privacy, since end-to-end encryption was another core feature of WhatsApp pre-Zuckerberg. Facebook has in the past claimed that end-to-end encryption will be protected, but after leaving a trail of broken promises in their wake, “Facebook claims” is a phrase most people take with a large pinch of salt these days — and most of Zuckerberg’s grand pronouncements have started to sound more like PR stunts than anything else.
Take, for instance, his new “privacy-focused vision” for Facebook, which entails deeper integration of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Tech analysts believe, however, that the real motivation behind tighter integration is part of Zuckerberg’s gameplan to stave off efforts by government regulators in the US and EU to force a breakup of the three platforms on antitrust grounds.
Democratic presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have both called out the anti-competitive mergers undertaken by monopolies like Facebook, Amazon and Google and called for regulators to do more to prevent huge corporations from having too much power over their customers and users.
The idea of breaking up Facebook for the greater good was even endorsed in a brutal op-ed by one of its original co-founders Chris Hughes, who warned that there was “no precedent for [Zuckerberg’s] ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people” and berated the controversial CEO over “sloppy privacy practices.”
A study conducted earlier this year revealed that users are ditching Facebook in their droves. The platform, it found, lost an estimated 15 million users in the last two years. Worryingly for the Menlo Park-based company, the biggest drop was observed in the 12-34 year-old category. It’s not just individual users that are dumping Facebook either. Fitness company CrossFit recently announced it would leave the platform too, publishing an anti-Facebook manifesto of sorts and saying that the company’s policies were “to the detriment” of its fitness community.
Facebook has seemed untouchable for so long and Zuckerberg likely feels somewhat invincible. After all, Facebook is a near-monopoly that Hughes warned has the power to simply shut down any emerging competitor by either “acquiring, blocking or copying it.”
WhatsApp ads might be a last straw for some, but if it wants to avoid provoking a mass exodus of users across its platforms, Facebook should be wary of enraging its users one-too-many times.