More than 2 billion people have come to accept that Facebook is, more or less, what a social network is. Its highly particular and historically contingent bundle of features and applications has become the yardstick by which all other networks (outside China) are measured.
But was this Facebook inevitable, or have the company and its users simply fallen into this particular configuration? For example, Facebook began as a simple desktop website in which people could connect to friends in a small number of universities through MySpace-like profiles. But then came the News Feed in 2006, which collected and ranked the different things your friends were doing (like posting new pictures or breaking up). People hated it, even according to the engineers who worked on it. “A lot of folks wanted us to shut News Feed down. And most other companies would have done precisely that, especially if 10% of their users threatened to boycott the product,” recalled Ruchi Sanghvi, an engineer on the original team, in 2016. They didn’t, though, because as Sanghvi explained, to their minds it “was actually working.” “Amidst all the chaos, all the outrage, we noticed something unusual,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Even though everyone claimed they hated it, engagement had doubled.”
The “feed” format spread far and wide. And Facebook learned an important thing: It didn’t have to listen to what users said, when it could watch what they did. That’s guided decision after decision as the company morphed into the global powerhouse that it is.
But what if Facebook had shut down News Feed? Would Facebook have learned that its data might not reflect how users actually felt about a service they feel compelled to use? What if that decision flips the direction of both the social network and its internal processes?