My prefiguration of Facebook never got off the ground—at least not beyond a few private uses of it. But now that the baby I made it for is almost an adult, it strikes me that the difference between the online community we actually got, and the ones alternate timelines might have offered instead, tell us a lot about Facebook’s creators—what they found important, and why, and toward what ends.
The myth of the lone genius perpetuates the false idea that Facebook (or Google, or Slack, or any other successful technology start-up) arose in the solitary mind of its founder. But the stage was already set for these ideas. By the time I made my Facebook cousin in 2002, Pyra Labs and Movable Type had made blogging ubiquitous. Friendster, an early social network, launched that year, and MySpace and LinkedIn appeared the next. Personal publishing and online networking were fusing before Zuckerberg came on the scene. Even Zuck faced allegations that he basically stole the idea for Facebook from his Harvard classmates, the Winklevoss twins.
For more than a decade, nobody thought about the alternatives that didn’t get pursued thanks to Facebook’s rise. Then the scandals began, and all those unspoken assumptions came home to roost. The thing we’d all just allowed into our lives started feeling menacing, and the companies that made it started damage control.
Sick from the fallout of two years of scandal around leaking massive troves of personal data and accelerating the spread of misinformation on its services, Facebook has been forced to change tack. Mark Zuckerberg spent the first decade of his company’s life advocating for increased “openness” and “sharing” thanks to the service. More people sharing more things were supposed to “bring the world together.” But after Cambridge Analytica, after Russian interference in election ads on its platform, and after a series of breaches that exposed the personal information of hundreds of millions of users, more sharing started to seem like a great way to tear the world apart instead.
So last week, at Facebook’s annual conference, Zuckerberg promised to put privacy first in a new redesign of its website and app, focusing on making intimate, personal conversations more central to the service. On a screen behind Zuckerberg, large text heralded the shift: “The future is private.”
Critics have rightly retorted that this promise runs skin deep, at best. Facebook is not going to change what it does with the data gleaned from your posts in the “privacy” of its own servers—a capacity central to its ad-driven business model. But even so, Zuck’s new tagline offers a surprising insight by contrast: The future might or might not be private. But the past certainly was.
In 2002, when I built my family-album service, it was very unlikely that you’d post pictures or stories about your kids on the public internet. In part that was a matter of custom more than concern: Digital cameras were scarce, and the images they produced weren’t very good. Nobody yet cared to see the details of other people’s personal lives.