Facebook is pivoting to privacy. This has been on the cards for months, but the platform’s F8 developer conference reaffirmed just how high on the agenda it is. "The future is private," chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said.
For a platform that was built around the concept of openness, connection and sharing, this seems like a rather seismic shift. But with pressure from regulators, data and hacking scandals and loss of trust from users, Facebook has had little choice in the matter.
The privacy-focused Facebook is here to stay, ready to pre-empt inevitable action of some kind from governments and regulators; breaking up the company has even been proposed by one of Facebook's co-founders. But while the tone of the communications around the privacy moves has been very much user-centric and even wellness-focused, you can be sure that Facebook will find a way to make privacy profitable.
Enter the data gatekeeper
When it comes to data, Facebook is one of very few kings. Active users of its platforms are in the billions, and even if various studies tell us that usage of Facebook itself is plateauing or dwindling, other apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp unarguably continue to thrive. As we know, in today’s digital age, access to data creates competitive advantage, and Facebook has people hooked.
The privacy positioning is designed to reassure users. But with the exception of the proposed end-to-end encryption of its messaging services – a move in itself that will make it much more difficult to break up the Facebook family – what has been notable in its absence has been much talk of the platform gathering less data. For example, the test to remove public Instagram "likes" wouldn’t strip the platform of any information itself; rather, it would put it in a strong position between brands, agencies and a number of metrics, making it a data gatekeeper.
The platform’s focus on Groups is an interesting move; on the face of it, not an obvious money-spinner like ads within the news feed. However, being part of what feels like a closed and safe environment could encourage people to participate in more discussions and share with others (and, while doing so, share with Facebook).
Much of Facebook’s power lies in its ability to understand our needs, motivations and desires, then monetise them. And, of course, as brands can now join and participate in Groups, an increase in conversation could allow them to draw qualitative insights from these discussions. We could also see Facebook giving those who have created Groups licence to monetise them, with Facebook taking a cut, much like the YouTube creator model.
New challenge for influencers
Where does this privacy shift end? If the future lies in removing any form of public metrics across the Facebook family, this would be significant. Social validation is an important factor in determining what is and isn’t worth tuning into when it comes to content.
Algorithms would be even more important in determining what people watch; and although engagement would likely still be part of the criteria they use, people would need to make decisions without relying on validation of others, adding even more pressure to their already scarce time.
Lack of access to the metrics we currently have would make it more difficult for brands and agencies to select influencer partners; and marketers may need the platforms to verify what the talent has told us when it comes to their performance. Brands may need to invest more in paid media rather than rely on high levels of engagement to validate and spread their messages.
Ultimately, Facebook is a business – and a profitable one at that. While it would be nice if it does genuinely have its users’ best interests in mind, it also has employees to pay and shareholders to keep happy.
A quick look at Facebook’s share price over the past six months tells you how concerned its investors are about this pivot to privacy and the future profitability of the company (short answer: not very). When Zuckerberg wrote his 3,000-word New York Times essay calling for more regulation, the share price barely changed. The future lies in data – and, here, Facebook is still in control.
Mobbie Nazir is chief strategy officer at We Are Social