Little 15. How Facebook Changed the World: A Space Opera

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Episode Transcript

These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the typos and grammar flaws.

We’re celebrating a birthday this week. No, not mine or Matt’s or BFM’s. On Monday 4thFebruary, Facebook turned 15 years old. Today MSP takes a look at the impact of that legacy.

Hang on. It says here that today’s show is a Space Opera. Are you going to be singing?

· You know how most musicals have two parts the speak-y part and the sing-y part.

· I thought I’d do the speak-y part and you could sing the questions.

I’m not singing.

· But I’ve told the listeners it will be a Space Opera.

· They’re expecting this to be our Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You

· We’ve got CO2 cannons and pyrotechnics and everything.

· Rich was going to run through the studio in one of those flame suits, screaming.

· It was going to be legendary.

My contract says I have to sit in this studio with you. It doesn’t say anything about singing.

· Does it say no singing?

It doesn’t tell me if I should or shouldn’t kick you under the table. There are some things that you assume. Not singing is one of them.

· I’ll be honest. I’m a little disappointed.

It’s not my name on the show’s title.

· Then we’ll just have to apologize to the listeners.

· They’ll have to get through yet another show about social media without the benefit of uplifting bursts of song.

· You’re going to edit all this out, right?

I’ll do what’s best for the show, don’t worry.

· Ok, so we do the intro again?

I’ll sort it out in the edit. Do you want to say anything to our listeners celebrating the Lunar New Year?

· Not really. How many people are celebrating? A couple of billion?

· I’m trying to be really ruthless with my time this year.

· Anything less than 5 billion and it’s really not worth my time. I turned down a co-headliner with the Pope last week.

Why don’t you tell us about Facebook?

· It feels weird to be saying that Facebook is only 15.

· It feels like it has been around for so much longer than that.

· Like most people, I wish we could stop talking about the company. But it’s birthday week…

· So we’ll have a look at some of that impact — good and bad — and, if we have time, speculate about what the future might hold for the company.

For some of our listeners, those 15 years will literally be most if not all of their lives.

· Yeah. It’s always weird to think that there are people who never knew a world without Facebook.

· Listeners like Josh, my friend Sam Singh’s son.

· That’s something I always have in my mind when I’m doing talks and conferences,

· I have to remember that my sense of objective reality about these companies comes from a different place.

· I’m so old that, for me, 15 years is just the gap between breakfast and lunch.

You are old.

· I can still make you sing.

· And Future Matt is still going to kill all your descendants.

· So whose life is the waste?


· Oh yes. Sometimes I forget we’re here to do a show.

· In case you’ve been sleeping for the past 15 years, in which case, I want your job,

· Facebook is the social media network that has become one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies.

· Its success has transformed its scion, Mark Zuckerberg, from a humble geek into the kind of person who can idly toy with running for US President and fund it all himself.

When we go back to the start, do you think anyone could have imagined what Facebook would become?

· Well, there’s 7 billion odd people on the planet so I guess there’s at least a 1 in 7bn chance that someone would come up with that as a theory.

· Certainly, even when it launched to the wider public, I don’t think it was a mainstream view.

· If anything, it was seen as a more progressive version of social networks many of us were already using, like MySpace, Friendster and Friends Reunited.

What set it apart from those other networks? Why do you think it expanded so fast?

· Don’t forget that the service didn’t have grand aims, at least at first.

· It was conceived to connect students on the Harvard campus and it was a runaway success.

· And you can read plenty of books or watch movies about those early years, the mis-steps and the intrigues.

· So much has been written, performed and broadcast about that that it’s redundant to go over it here.

Could that apparent lack of focus have contributed to its success?

· One of the greatest things about the network, especially in those early years was its lack of definition.

· MySpace was purchased by News Corp and the company tried to guide its development.

· Facebook was the opposite. It let its users guide its development.

· Want to share pictures? Sure. We can do that.

· Have a video to post? Ok. Let’s write some code.

· Want social gaming? Okay, here’s a game about farms.

In a way, it was doing the opposite of Apple and its do less but better approach..

· Yeah, Facebook was happy to experiment and throw away features that didn’t work.

· Apart from Messenger. Which I know I’ve been asking them to throw away since day 1.

· And a lot of those early features felt very beta.

· It’s kept a healthy element of that approach.

· It still releases new features in batches, trying them out on different markets and user bases before rolling them out universally.

How crucial do you think that approach has been to its growth?

· Look at Twitter by comparison.

· Twitter’s genius was and is its brevity.

· Whether you like or loathe him, Trump, his brain and his little hands are perfectly suited to Twitter.

· He really is very good at using it.

· But that brevity is also a box when you compare it to what Facebook has become.

· What makes you great at that one thing puts a straitjacket on your development.

Whereas Facebook was a much more open platform?

· I think one of the things that really set it apart in those early days was that it was willing to do whatever it took to attract and retain users.

· What is it they call it, White Space development?

· It’s very good — not necessarily at judging the mood of the herd, but in testing and gauging what services resonate.

And because everyone you know is using it, too?

· Absolutely.

· Look at the SM platforms that have tried to challenge it since.

· Whenever there’s a big shock in Facebook’s eco-system, a data breach, whatever, you’ll get someone popping up and proposing some alternative.

· Like Ello, from a few years back.

· And they do okay for a while, the doubters and the dissenters adopt the new service but that critical mass of people isn’t there and people start to drift back.

As people say: the more invested you are in the service, the less likely you are to leave it?

· Yeah, so even with all the fake news nonsense going on right now…

o and last year there was that ditch Facebook hashtag campaign…

o …We’re still not seeing a massive desertion rate.

· I was on another BFM show last year with a guest who says he photographs and uploads all his receipts to the service as a way of preserving them for accounting purposes.

o There are all these little quirks and habits we’ve built into the service that makes it sticky.

o So that no matter how annoyed we are with the company, we don’t want to abandon our profiles.

But now that growth rate is slowing?

· Which is the biggest issue they’re facing: much more so than fake news or congressional oversight.

· A generation of people with no affinity and no reason to join.

· They have as many old people like us as there are to recruit.

· They can continue to milk us, but they already know people like me.

· As a data source, my milk is curdling.

· They need younger users: their data is more important and less predictable than ours.

Before we go into a break, let’s mark out some of the company’s biggest milestones.

· It’s easy to make this a character assassination. And yes, there will be plenty more negative stuff after the break.

· But let’s not forget that Facebook has been an incredibly important presence in our lives over the past two decades.

· It doesn’t matter whether you view it in isolation or as part of a broader technological trends.

· That Whiteboard approach to its development meant the service could progress as trends and technologies changed.

· Faster bandwidth? Add video.

· Secure payment gateways? Make is possible for small businesses to advertise with nothing more than a credit card.

So you’re saying that the company is like a magpie?

· Pretty much.

· It was able to look at all the things that were happening on the wider Internet and incorporate it into a closed ecosystem.

· It’s done that much more effectively than Google — which is about to shutter its own social network — Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Flickr.

· Whether it’s news, search, advertising, apps, storage, messaging or file sharing.

· The company has been very good at cherry-picking the best bits of what its competitors do and integrating them.

And doing it seamlessly?

· Yes. Because we can’t forget those astonishing numbers. 2bn users or thereabouts.

· That’s an incredible feat in and of itself.

· But think of all the different platforms and legacy systems those users are logging on from.

· To deliver a consistent service is an incredible achievement.

· It’s easy to take it for granted, but most services and companies can only dream of achieving that level of interoperability.

· And it takes persistence, innovation and a colossal amount of investment to achieve it.

Why is that such a big deal?

· Think about all the apps sitting on your phone.

· How many of those have a desktop equivalent that will work on a mac, or an Android phone, or a Windows machine.

· Think about how frustrating it still is to use Office or Google Docs from machine to machine.

· Compare that experience Facebook.

· Wherever you access it from, Facebook is Facebook. You can simply pick it up and run with it without having to worry about what system you’re running it on.


Before the break we were talking about some of the milestones — good and bad — that Facebook has piled up over the last 15 years. Mark Zuckerberg published a post on February 4th outlining some of the successes that he thought the company had achieved over the last 15 years.

What’s your take on that?

· Zuckerberg has published a couple of contentious thought pieces over the past few weeks.

· As you said, earlier this week he laid out his take on the company’s first 15 years.

· He also published a very strange op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in late January outlining the company’s strategy to protect the rights and privacy of its users.

· In the anniversary post there was a lot of blah blah blah about Facebook making the world more progressive, and speeding up interaction.

· For which he’s been widely derided, for conflating Facebook with the Internet in general.

· In fact, his entire post would have been more apt if it celebrated the anniversary of Google.

What would you have preferred him to talk about?

· That astonishing user base for one thing.

· And the company’s profitability.

· At least those facts are honest rather than self-serving.

· It’s easy to forget that FB’s IPO in 2012 was widely seen as a failure.

· A lot of people looking to flip shares and make a quick buck got their fingers well and truly singed when the stock dipped below its list price.

· But if you’d held onto those share, you’d be whistling victorious right now.

Is that because of mobile?

· Absolutely. If the development of the Net had gone along a different path, I do wonder whether FB would have become so successful.

· Mobile took a platform that we were already pretty obsessed with and made our interactions with it instant and malleable.

· At the same time, Facebook got hyper aggressive with the ads and the tracking.

Those cookies from the site that would follow you around the web?

· Yeah, that was one of the first indications we had in terms of how insidious data gathering and tracking, by dozens of tech firms, would become.

· There were also the bigger, more frequent and far more prominent ads and sponsored content.

· More importantly was that intersection of targeting, tracking and closed walls: ads became, theoretically, more relevant and targeted.

· Which attracted more advertisers and FB’s profits started to soar.

· So for advertisers, the platform went from being an ocean they occasionally chucked a stone into, to a series of well-stocked ponds ready to eat their message.

Let’s head back to that Wall Street Journal op-ed. You mentioned it was a bit weird.

· Well, it was sort of billed as Mark Zuckerberg trying to define FB’s business model and reassure the world that everything that happens on the platform happens in the light.

· Even in that, it backfired.

· First it’s an odd location for openness.

· The WSJ has one of the most restrictive paywalls on the Net.

· In fact, I had to come and use BFM’s access to the site because I wanted to read the source text and not rely on summaries on other news sites.

· So you write that you want to put people’s minds at rest. But you do it in a place where 99.9% of your users can’t access it.

· But weirdly, it’s a location one where most of your institutional investors and largest advertisers are likely to be subscribers, happy to applaud your selective transparency.

There was a good take on it from the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

· I’m glad you mentioned that.

· Too often, we reference news sites and it’s too easy for people to jump in and say well this site pushes that view or that bias.

· And sure, the EFF is partisan. In that it pushed the view of transparency and access.

· But it’s not politically partisan. It just relies on those things that no one likes any more: facts.

What do people seem to have taken exception to?

· I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say most people prefer targeted ads.

· We prefer no ads. I think for most people ads are irrelevant, and there are questions about how accurate the conclusions of the information Facebook has on you are.

Can we check that information?

· Yes. Click on the dropdown on any ad in your feed, you’ll see a little Why Am I seeing this section.

· Click on this and on the next pop up you’ll see manage my ad preferences.

That’s a few clicks buried…

· Is it? I can’t imagine why that would be.

· It’s the same story with the permissions we give Facebook to let them harvest this data and send us ads.

· Yes, we have given them permission. But equally those terms and conditions could ban us from eating lasagne on Friday, or even that we’ve agreed to Fridays being renamed Zuckday.

And he also alleged that Facebook doesn’t sell your data.

· Which is true. There’s no corner store where you can rock up and ask for a Jeff Sandhu sub with some personal habits and a side of ranch dressing.

· But it does monetize your data. It has to. You aren’t paying for the platform, so someone else is.

And he also says that he’s in favour of governments regulating the service.

· Perfectly true. But only part of the story. It’s like when you tell people you like me. It’s not untrue.

· But it’s only part of the picture.

· It omits the part where you beat me up in the car park and slash my car tyres.

I told you that wasn’t me. The police said the CCTV footage was inconclusive.

· Yet you have the same hockey mask in your desk drawer. Coincidence?

· It’s a similar story with Facebook — I mean Mark Zuckerberg isn’t attacking me in car parks — but that doesn’t mean the company isn’t lobbying for laws that are more favourable to its service.

I think you wanted to end with an interview. You don’t normally bring guests onto MSP.

· We wanted to get Mark Zuckerberg on the line to chat with us today. Obviously, after our falling out over Instagroom and the cobalt mines, that wasn’t going to happen.

· What we did manage to get hold of was a Facebot, an experimental AI called Little Mark.

Hello Little Mark. Welcome to MSP. Thanks for joining us today.

This studio smells like butterscotch and feet. You must be very old. (Little Mark 1)

I’m guessing you’re still growing up. No one has programmed you with any manners yet.

My daddy says I’m a big boy but I won’t grow up to be a manners. (Little Mark 2)

Ok. Still a bit of work needed on that logic chip. I want to know what you think about privacy

I think privacy is very important. We’ve got very big fences around our estate. Daddy says it’s very important to have a walled garden. And to tape up any cameras I see. (Little Mark 3)

I was talking about your users.

· Daddy says they have as much privacy as they need in the information barn. It makes it easier to milk the data out of them. (Little Mark 4)

And your job is to milk that information out of them?

· Sure. I give them kitten videos. And emojis. And stickers. It’s super fun. One day I’m going to star in my own show and everyone will spend all day watching me fly around at the speed of light.

· My Daddy says that if you can make them watch videos about boring stuff like sewing and baking, you can make them do anything you want. Anything at all.

· Hahahahahaha (Little Mark 5)

Is that all you got?

· No, but it got really weird after that.

That wasn’t weird?

· After that Little Mark started talking about quantum events, redundant code and The Purge.

· Then he started using multiple voices at the same time and I got a really bad headache and started screaming.

· I figured that either someone had included Reddit in his dataset or that AI really does pose a way bigger risk than we ever thought.

· Is this the bit where we have the finale and you burst into song?

You know that a space opera isn’t a musical, don’t you? Star Wars is a Space Opera. You could have spent this entire episode pretending to be Yoda instead of trying to get me to sing.

When I grow up I want to be a futurist. Broadcaster, writer, consultant and speaker. Host of MSP on BFM89.9. Listen & read at