Millions of people say they don’t use the Internet – but talk enthusiastically about Facebook. How has this monopoly of the World Wide Web come about? And what wider implications does it have?
Communications surveys were carried out across the developing world, but there were anomalies in their conclusions: despite stating that they don’t use the Internet, those questioned reacted very positively to Facebook.
But what does this mean for us? What does it mean for businesses, including Mark Zuckerberg’s? And what does it mean for the World Wide Web?
How is This Even Possible?
Many admit to spending far too much time on the world’s most popular social network, but they are, at least, aware that they’re using the Internet; yet studies (including one by think-tank LIRNEasia) in countries like Indonesia, Africa, and the Philippines have found that those surveyed love Facebook – but assert that they don’t use the web. It’s not simple ignorance. They’ve been brought into this culture. While many of us have been introduced to the idea of Facebook through the Internet, in the minds of millions, the two exist separately because their first interaction with the World Wide Web is via the social network.
Even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, admits:
“We know Facebook is one of the main drivers of why people buy phones, particularly in the developing world. People will walk into phone stores and say ‘I want Facebook.’ People actually confuse Facebook and the Internet in some places.”
This is a situation partly fashioned by Facebook; in developing countries, sales of smartphones have increased because Facebook is so popular… and is, in many cases, one of the only accessible free apps (alongside its messenger service). A non-profit service striving to get wider web coverage, internet.org, sounds entirely altruistic — providing information about jobs, health, weather, and women’s rights to those unable to easily access the World Wide Web – but it is, in fact, owned by Facebook. So is WhatsApp, used by mobile users worldwide (which has led to concerns over privacy).
Many service providers offer low-priced Facebook-only data plans, while Facebook Zero gives – you guessed it – entirely free access to the social network exclusively. Meanwhile, internet.org boasts Wikipedia and Google Search apps, but only to those with data plans (something unaffordable to 85% of the 4.25 billion people otherwise without Internet access). It’s not the sole service striving for Internet coverage in the developing world, either. Just look at U2opia Mobile, for example, or the great work CloudFactory is doing. Google also offers India the chance to send free SMS messages using their Chat service.
Why is This a Bad Thing?
It’s easy to see why many are concerned that a business has gained such an incredible monopoly over the Internet.
“When I designed the Web, I deliberately built it as a neutral, creative and collaborative space, building on the openness the Internet offered. My vision was that anyone, anywhere in the world could share knowledge and ideas without needing to buy a license or ask permission from myself or any CEO, government department or committee. This openness unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and it is still powering new breakthroughs in science, commerce, culture and much more besides.”
So while the Internet was conceived as an open platform, not owned by any one private organisation, Facebook is a threat to this, capable of censoring anything it likes!
Indeed, changes to its algorithms last year mean that unpaid posts it deems as “overly promotional” have shorter reaches. So, while social media is a good way of spreading a message, they want you to pay as you would a normal advertisement. This especially applies to any posts with “improper mention of Facebook” – which sounds a lot like Facebook censoring criticism.
In a study by Quartz, between 55% and 65% of those asked in Nigeria, Indonesia, India, and Brazil agreed with the statement, ‘Facebook is the Internet’ – compared to just 5% in the USA. It puts freedom of speech and freedom of the press into question: ordinarily, it’s not a surprise that a business or brand would implement limitations, but restrictions on the Internet are more surprising (unless you’re into conspiracies).
Naturally, one negative consequence of a business having too much power is their ability to name a high price, so, in the third quarter of 2014, Facebook’s average price per ad increased 274% year-over-year. However, you could argue that Google has had a monopoly on advertising before now, and so as Facebook becomes its successor, another service will eventually take over from that too.
Nonetheless, LIRNEasia’s Rohan Samarajiva is right when he says that Facebook is “a proprietary platform. It’s not the open Internet that we love and cherish.”
What is Facebook’s Aim?
Even though it’s supposedly founded on the positive idea of bringing people together, we have to remember that Facebook is a business. So what are its intentions?
Facebook isn’t admitting its potential dominance over the Internet, but neither is it denying it. Frankly, we can only speculate, but it would certainly seem advantageous to the company to monopolise information, and censoring negativity towards their service and those name-checking competitors.
FB Newswire is an aggregate resource of verified news and stories from companies you’ve liked – though the latter seems increasingly few and far between. This budding ownership of news is even more troubling, somewhat reminiscent of AOL, the closed platform giant that appeared to dominate control of information on the Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
To demonstrate the pulling power of Facebook, Adweek compared the change in referrals from the social network to popular websites between November 2013 and February 2014. The number of referrals to Upworthy, for instance, decreased by 50% in that short period of time, a 51% drop of total unique visitors; meanwhile, BuzzFeed enjoyed a 20% increase in links, resulting in 12% rise in unique readers. Even The New York Times suffered a 16% loss of referrals, translating into an 8% loss in overall visitors.
How much does this data tell us? Does this simply show us the typical peaks and troughs of business, according to what is popular with the general public? Is Facebook directly influencing what is popular? Or are they merely encouraging the trend? Again, we’re forced to speculate.
One thing is for certain though: monopolisation of information is a dangerous thing. A previous concern about ownership interest arose with Rupert Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB, with The Guardian commenting:
“Media silence seems to be infectious, spreading to politicians who are glad to avoid causing offence to powerful proprietors. This isn’t acceptable.”
Does Facebook Have Too Much Power?
Initially, the fact that people think they’re using Facebook but not the Internet is quite funny. It sounds so improbable.
But considering that Facebook already knows a surprising amount about you, this is potentially a huge issue. Then again, as LIRNEasia’s Samarajiva notes:
“Maybe it will introduce them to the larger concept of the Internet. They’re already on the Internet. They just don’t know they’re there.”
As a brand intent on growing, was this inevitable? Are you happy with Facebook’s dominance? Or have you ditched it already?