In an explosive opinion piece published today in The New York Times, Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder and Mark Zuckerberg’s former Harvard roommate, called for the government to break up the social-media company. “I haven’t worked at the company in a decade,” Hughes wrote, “But I feel a sense of anger and responsibility.”
That’s a nice gesture, and Hughes, now a co-founder of a basic-income collective, puts forth some worthy ideas that tech entrepreneurs, even lapsed ones, rarely embrace. But the gesture is still more rhetorical than actionable, and it doesn’t go nearly far enough into specifics about how to dismantle a company he calls a dangerous monopoly.
It probably makes sense to break up Facebook. Splitting off two of its subsidiaries, Instagram and WhatsApp, would be a reasonable first step toward that end, and Hughes’s rationale for doing so also makes sense. Billions of people now use these services, and Facebook has made motions that it intends to integrate them into its other products. (That process has already been under way for some time, for example by surfacing Facebook updates in Instagram.)
But even if you did that, you’d be left with core Facebook. According to the Pew Research Center, about 68 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, far more than the number who use Instagram or WhatsApp. Among these Facebook users, about three-quarters of them visit the site daily. The service is popular among every demographic, but especially among women, urbanites, and the college educated. Usage among older people has also been increasing steadily. Teens use Facebook a lot less than they used to—Instagram and Snapchat are more popular for young people—but they’ve hardly given up Facebook in the way some media coverage of those competitors might suggest. As of last year, according to Pew, a little more than half of kids ages 13 to 17 reported using the service.