When Facebook said it would pay $2 billion for Oculus VR (or rather, $1.7 billion as of this morning, with Facebook’s stock down 10 percent following the news), the company presented the deal as if it was the greatest thing to happen to human communication since, well, Facebook. Oculus plus Facebook could create, according to Mark Zuckerberg, “the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”
But a surprisingly large number of people didn’t agree. Some people who backed the company on Kickstarter felt betrayed, Others on Twitter as well as Pando’s James Robinson lamented the deal’s effect on innovation as well as our dreams for the future. The bulk of the 800-plus comments on Hacker News echo similar sentiments.
Most of these complaints are rooted in disappointment if not disgust with what has become the Facebook experience. Facebook has always presented itself as a crew of engineers motivated by the Hacker Way – it even trumpeted that term in its IPO prospectus and picked “One Hacker Way” as the address for its Menlo Park campus – but many people have come to see it as a way to corral its 750 million daily users into learning to love, or at least put up with, a bunch of ads in their news feeds.
The outcry may be cathartic, but it achieves nothing. For Facebook, your cries of anguish and your tears over the lost future of VR/mobile/civilization are only so much food for its future growth. Because if one thing has been true throughout the history of Facebook, it’s this: The more people complain about Facebook, the more successful the company becomes in the end.
What’s more, complaints typically extrapolate Facebook’s past (mediocre, ad-plagued user experience) onto its future. But Facebook is a very different company today than a year ago. It’s not apparent when you visit Facebook.com on the desktop, but you can see it in its ambitions. Facebook’s site and even its mobile app are now the cash cows supporting new platforms. Those platforms don’t have to resemble the old Facebook because the company is less interested in the old Facebook than applying lessons it’s learned to develop even bigger projects.
Facebook.com was about getting people to share their lives online. It was about learning how to monetize social networks with ads. It was less about getting social networking to work for us users, but rather getting us to act in a way that helped social networks. It didn’t matter how much we complained, the complaining was a vocal side effect of a deeper, more important change– going all the way back to the launch of the newsfeed and Zuckerberg’s pivotal and risky decision to dig in his heels and keep the social network the way he wanted it.
That change in our behavior was exactly what Zuckerberg foresaw. The complaints changed Facebook, but not as much as Facebook changed us. A decade into Facebook, hundreds of millions of us routinely “like” brands as if they were friends, or take quizzes that share personal data. Now many users share products and services with each other like they were secrets. Above all, we have learned to live life online. To put our lives, piecemeal, day by day, on Facebook’s web site until we are living our lives there.
Today, Facebook.com may be turning into a wasteland of display ads, but the company doesn’t seem to mind. Most users have migrated to the mobile web. The ones still logging in on Facebook.com may complain about the ads, but they’ve learned to accept them. Facebook has followed its users, focusing its engineering attention on mobile interfaces.
At first, the mobile web looked like it could be the undoing of Facebook’s grand plans. That idea drove Facebook’s stock down in the first year after its IPO. In less than a year, Facebook found a way to insert ads into mobile news feeds that users again learned to live with. It used personal data it’s collected on users over the past decade to target ads that advertisers like so much they pay a rich premium for them.
And as we’ve seen in the past several weeks, Facebook is nowhere near finished. It bought WhatsApp to expand its reach in mobile and Oculus to explore how to create a virtual reality platform. Mobile messaging is a platform in its early stage of development, and VR is still in its infancy. These are bold bets on companies that aren’t guaranteed winners. Facebook hasn’t ensured victory, it’s just bought its entry into the race.
Analysis of the Oculus deal points out Sony and Microsoft as competitors. Facebook has bought some top talent, but it’s not clear whether it has patents that can fend off copycats. Similarly, WhatsApp rivals WeChat, Kik, and others have more advanced messaging platforms. But Facebook has something none of those companies do: A decade of tracking users and manipulating them into doing what Facebook wants, even when they don’t want it themselves.
Facebook knows our weaknesses. It knows when to push us into uncomfortable new changes and when to ease back. It knows when complaints are just us making noises as we change in ways we don’t want to change, and when the complaints boil over into PR crises or regulatory attention. Facebook has learned a lot about us users, and it knows how to use us. It knows the complaints are part of the process – feedback essential to developing a more efficient product, if not a more useful one.
As money-minded as Facebook appears, it may well be what it has always claimed to be: An engineering company. Its growing ranks of engineers write, and rewrite, software code. But Facebook isn’t content with that. They also want to rewrite us. Facebook writes the software that changes how its users behave. As far as its engineering mindset is concerned, we are just the last mile of code.
Facebook critics often doubt the company’s sincerity when it describes itself as an engineering company. The site’s ads, and the company’s financial success suggest otherwise. But maybe Facebook is right, that engineering and hacking is the core of the company. Go back and look at Zuckerberg’s comment that Oculus has the potential to “change the way we work, play and communicate.”
There’s the adage that on free sites like Facebook the product is you. What if it went deeper than that, that the code is you? The scary thing about Facebook may not be that it’s cynically slinging ads into friendships, the scary thing may actually be Facebook’s intent is to engineer its users as it would any piece of technology. With one key difference: This particular technology has the ability to complain.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]