Both companies had a bad execution in the years 2010. It was their fault.
It was a tough decade for Facebook and Twitter. The two entered the years 2010 with much promise. On Twitter, you can chat with just about anyone. On Facebook, you can have endless fun browsing photos and status that your friends probably should not have posted.
Then all hell collapsed. Social media was no longer fun. It was toxic. And it stayed that way for a reason.
Finally, Facebook and Twitter fell into chaos on their own. Over 10 years, they made a series of misguided product decisions that transformed them from online amusement parks into hellish landscapes. Here is how it happened.
Time magazine named Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the Person of the Year in 2010, in what was probably the pinnacle of social media popularity. The site at that time had a mere 550 million users. “It started out as a joke, a diversion, but it turned into something real, something that changed the way humans relate on a species scale,” the Time article said.
Time approached Zuckerberg with an optimistic — even reverent — tone aware of his accomplishments and power. Throughout the profile, however, there was a sense of uncertainty about where this power would lead.
While Time was interviewing Zuckerberg, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller entered the room. A Facebook spokesman tried to postpone this, but the reporter declined. “They shook hands and talked about nothing for a few minutes, and then Mueller left,” said the Time profile. “There was a dizzying silence as everyone looked at each other as if to say, what the hell happened?”
Facebook was like this at the time:
The Social Network News Feed was up and running, but Facebook was mostly a directory where people could share their lives with friends and family. Public content – from celebrities, news sites and politicians – was barely present.
Facebook had great designs. He wanted outsourced developers to build applications, and he wanted to dig deeper into Web services. To do so, he eased restrictions on how much data developers could support. “We have this policy where you can’t store and cache any data for more than 24 hours, and let’s move on and get rid of that policy,” Zuckerberg told the Facebook F8 2010 developer conference. According to a CNET report, the public applauded.
Meanwhile, Twitter was like this:
Twitter co-founder and then CEO Evan Williams was sending updates on his plans to attend Apple CEO Steve Jobs attending Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. He was also tweeting about a new ride service called Ubercab. One day.
In 2011, Facebook introduced the Subscribe button, a new feature designed to make the service bigger and more influential. The button “lets you hear interesting people you’re not friends with – such as journalists, artists and political figures,” Facebook said in its ad. “Just click the button to get the correct public updates in your News Feed.”
The Subscribe button was addictive for both Facebook users and public figures. But by creating the Subscribe button, Facebook has sacrificed some of its friends and family for influence and size.
Twitter in 2011 introduced photo sharing, taking a big step towards becoming a more visual and text-less network. “140 characters, now worth 1,000 words,” wrote then-CEO Jack Dorsey.
Facebook was launched in 2012 with over 800 million users. It went public in May, increasing pressure to increase its user base and revenue every quarter. “Facebook aspires to create the services that give people the power to share and help them transform many of our core institutions and industries again,” Zuckerberg wrote in the company’s IPO.
Meanwhile, Twitter was the defining political platform for the 2012 US presidential election. A post-win tweet with a photo of Barack and Michelle Obama became the platform’s most retweeted post.
Eight days after the election, Facebook tried to catch up. He introduced a mobile sharing button – a retweet clone – that would speed up his service, making it more attractive to news organizations and politicians.
With 230 million users, Twitter went public in 2013, increasing the pressure to increase its user base and revenue.
Facebook spent 2013 copying more features from Twitter. Added hashtags in March and a trending column in August. The sign was clear: Facebook wanted a lot more public content in real time.
Traditional news editors responded to the Facebook call, working hard to create operations that translated their work from something people would pay for something they would click. Non-traditional publishers have also criticized the party, including just digital news and entertainment sites (including BuzzFeed), as well as fake news made for Facebook.
“I was seeing these types of sites all over the place with big followers and they were getting good traffic and I thought to myself, well, I could do that,” Jestin Coler, who created the fake news site National Report in 2013, told BuzzFeed News.
Facebook’s decision to increase public content and add a mobile share button has spawned fake news on its service. People spread all sorts of lies without thinking too much – the share button has removed almost all hesitation from sharing – as long as these lies confirm their worldview.
Twitter began experimenting with a “retweet with comment” feature – now known as a quote tweet – in 2014. The feature would introduce a new practice to the service: dunking. That would add a level of public cruelty to Twitter. “The biggest problem is retweeting quotes,” former Twitter product director Jason Goldman told BuzzFeed News earlier this year. “It’s the dunk mechanism.”
In 2014, Twitter users showed a new ability to do damage using the service’s tools. That year Gamergate erupted. Gamergate was a harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry and armed the retweet button. Chris Wetherell, leader of the 2009 retweet button project, watched in horror as Gamergate unfolded, understanding the damage caused by its creation. “Ask any of the people who were targets at the time, retweeting helped get a fake picture of a person out there faster than they could answer,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We didn’t build a defense for that. We just built an offensive channel. “
Facebook also had a busy year in 2014. It revealed that it manipulated user emotions through a News Feed experiment, bought virtual reality startup Oculus for $ 2 billion and WhatsApp messaging for $ 19. billion. Facebook was now huge – with over one billion mobile users – and was not devoting enough resources to monitor its products.
Facebook’s desire for public content has made its service flooded with posts from public sources, making normal sharing between friends and family intimidating. By 2015, people were sharing fewer original Facebook posts, leaving a void that fake and hyped news providers were happy to fill. That year, Facebook knew it had a problem on its hands and promised to show less prank calls.
In 2015, Ted Cruz’s US presidential campaign began working with data firm Cambridge Analytica to target voters. Cambridge Analytica, according to a Guardian report that year, was using “psychographic profiles” of US citizens built on Facebook data that researcher Aleksandr Kogan collected and maintained under the site’s developer policies.
Twitter – focused on making money and growing its user base to please public markets – largely ignored a harassment issue that got worse after Gamergate. “We are terrible at dealing with abuse,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in early 2015 in a rare moment of self-reflection. Costolo resigned, leaving the mess to Dorsey, who returned as CEO of Twitter.
Twitter introduced an algorithm to your feed in 2016, and the trolls went wild. One summer night, a mob unleashed by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos acted so brutally that his target, Ghostbuster actor Leslie Jones, left the service. Twitter has become a honeypot for idiots.
Meanwhile, Facebook has become the definitive platform for the 2016 US presidential election, but perhaps not for the reasons it hoped for. Top fake news became more viral on Facebook than real news, hyperparty pages spread misleading information about candidates, and teens in Macedonia ran dozens of pro-Trump fake news sites to profit from the frenzy.
A Kremlin-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, has spread Facebook and Twitter posts in order to sow discord and destroy American society.
And after Ted Cruz left the race, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which would go to victory, began working with Cambridge Analytica.
After approaching saturation in the US market, Facebook has worked for years to expand into international markets. The company was successful, reaching 2 billion monthly users by mid-2017, but was sadly unprepared to keep its expansion secure. In 2017, Myanmar’s parliamentarians published hate speech and lies about the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. For these lawmakers, Facebook has become an essential tool in a violent campaign that displaced 700,000 Rohingya in what the UN called genocide.
On Twitter, a contractor on his last day at work deactivated President Trump’s account.
In March 2018, the New York Times and Guardian published damning stories that reveal the full extent of Cambridge Analytica’s work in the 2016 elections. Kogan provided the company with data on up to 87 million Facebook users, but only 270,000 people consented to deliver your data. The data identified people’s personality traits, helping to personalize messages based on whether they were pleasant, for example, or religious. Christopher Wylie, the complainant, stated: “I created Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool.” A month later, Zuckerberg was explaining himself at the Capitol.
Having been summoned and dragged before Congress for its failures, Facebook has begun to address some of the vulnerabilities in its core service. But he still struggled to contain the damage done to his satellite applications. Like retweet and sharing, WhatsApp had a “forward” button that allowed news, memes, and rumors to spread quickly, without thought or hesitation. In July 2018, a mob in the village of Rainpada, India, killed five strangers to death after watching untraceable WhatsApp videos warning – unfounded – child kidnappers. Facebook would limit message forwarding in 2019.
Twitter spent much of 2018 defending its decision not to ban conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, giving the impression that there was still no certainty where to draw the line of his speech rules. So in September, after Apple banned it, Twitter followed suit.
By the end of the decade, Facebook and Twitter were striving to clean up their services. Twitter banned political ads before the election, and Facebook is considering restrictions. Twitter has said it will label politicians’ tweets when they violate their rules, and Facebook is trying to emphasize the content of friends and family again.
For a decade, both services have prioritized growth and influence on security, creating a mess they will spend the next decade cleaning up. They have achieved their goals, achieving great wealth and power as a result, but at a cost to society that will not be fully calculable in the coming years.