Ask Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of the social network Twitter and the mobile-payment start-up Square, what his two companies have in common, and he has a quick answer: “They’re both utilities.” Mark Zuckerberg might agree: he spent years trying to convince people that Facebook is not a social network but a “social utility.”
It’s an intriguing choice of words for such of-the-moment entrepreneurs. Utilities tend to be boring, slow-growing beasts. They also—and this is the more important point—tend to be monopolies that are either regulated heavily by governments or owned outright by them.
Indeed, once they get beyond a certain size, technology companies do become wary of the word. Google has been called a utility by lots of people, but you won’t hear the company’s executives using the term (at least, I couldn’t find any examples). And Zuckerberg, when asked in 2010 whether, as a utility, Facebook ought to be regulated, said he hadn’t meant the word that way at all: “Something that’s cool can fade. But something that’s useful won’t. That’s what I meant by utility.”
Yet there are lots of useful things in the world—clothing, breakfast, this issue of The Atlantic—that no one would ever think of calling a utility. Yes, there is an innocuous class of computer software known as utilities. But what companies like Twitter, Square, and Facebook—not to mention Google, Amazon, and Apple—aspire to, and in some cases have achieved, is a status similar to that of traditional utilities like Ma Bell. They attempt to position themselves such that customers can’t get around them, or can’t afford to leave them. And when they succeed, they start appearing to some customers, would-be competitors, and regulators like scary monopolies that somebody needs to do something about.