Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Persistence of Facebook

John Lanchester, in a lengthy essay for the London Review of Books, reviews three books published in the past year about Facebook and Silicon Valley’s dominance of the web generally:

What, though, if none of the above happens? What if advertisers don’t rebel, governments don’t act, users don’t quit, and the good ship Zuckerberg and all who sail in her continues blithely on? We should look again at that figure of two billion monthly active users. The total number of people who have any access to the internet – as broadly defined as possible, to include the slowest dial-up speeds and creakiest developing-world mobile service, as well as people who have access but don’t use it – is three and a half billion. Of those, about 750 million are in China and Iran, which block Facebook. Russians, about a hundred million of whom are on the net, tend not to use Facebook because they prefer their native copycat site VKontakte. So put the potential audience for the site at 2.6 billion. In developed countries where Facebook has been present for years, use of the site peaks at about 75 per cent of the population (that’s in the US). That would imply a total potential audience for Facebook of 1.95 billion. At two billion monthly active users, Facebook has already gone past that number, and is running out of connected humans. Martínez compares Zuckerberg to Alexander the Great, weeping because he has no more worlds to conquer. Perhaps this is one reason for the early signals Zuck has sent about running for president – the fifty-state pretending-to-give-a-shit tour, the thoughtful-listening pose he’s photographed in while sharing milkshakes in (Presidential Ambitions klaxon!) an Iowa diner.

Whatever comes next will take us back to those two pillars of the company, growth and monetisation. Growth can only come from connecting new areas of the planet. An early experiment came in the form of Free Basics, a program offering internet connectivity to remote villages in India, with the proviso that the range of sites on offer should be controlled by Facebook. ‘Who could possibly be against this?’ Zuckerberg wrote in the Times of India. The answer: lots and lots of angry Indians. The government ruled that Facebook shouldn’t be able to ‘shape users’ internet experience’ by restricting access to the broader internet. A Facebook board member tweeted that ‘anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?’ As Taplin points out, that remark ‘unwittingly revealed a previously unspoken truth: Facebook and Google are the new colonial powers.’

Much of this essay is stuff that you’ve read before, especially if you frequent this website. But to see it all in a single place and to pair it with observations about the depth and breadth of control that Facebook — and Google, and Amazon — has over the web is compelling. I regret reading this only now, and not before the long weekend, when many of you would have had more time to spend with it.