Facebook's fatal weakness: Why the social network is losing to Amazon, Apple & Google

Ten years in, Facebook has its eye on world domination, but one tricky hurdle stands in the way: People hate it

By Andrew Leonard

Published February 4, 2014 12:43PM (EST)

Mark Zuckerberg                   (Benjamin Wheelock/Reuters/Stephen Lam/Salon)
Mark Zuckerberg (Benjamin Wheelock/Reuters/Stephen Lam/Salon)

Every day, and sometimes several times a day, I change the News Feed setting on my Facebook Mobile app to "Most Recent." I do this because I prefer to see the status updates generated by the people I am friends with in the chronological order in which they have been created, rather than let Facebook decide what is "important" enough to be at the top of queue.

Facebook doesn't care that I have consistently made my preference clear for years. Facebook routinely resets the default to its own preferred setting, in which a mysterious algorithm decides which updates are worthy of my immediate attention. But I'll be damned if I'm going to let Mark Zuckerberg impose his values on me. So every single time, I change it back. And every single time I wonder: Why do I put up with this? Is there any other tool I regularly use from which I would accept such obnoxious behavior?

Facebook occupies a unique spot in contemporary culture. It is central to the emerging media universe and a daily part of life for more than a billion people across the world. It is without question transformative: We communicate with each other differently in the age of Facebook. And we expose far more personal information about ourselves to the public than ever before. But, oddly, the company appears to inspire remarkably little direct brand enthusiasm, at least as compared to its tech behemoth competitors Apple, Google and Amazon.

Even if there are good reasons to be wary and frightened of how Apple and Amazon and Google are remaking our economy and society, those companies also inspire genuine fandom for the sheer quality of their services. Gazing at a set of amazingly useful search results, or a package on your doorstep, or a new iPhone, it is not out of bounds to feel actual affection for the company responsible. Not so, with Facebook. We go to Facebook because that's where our friends and family are. The social network is reminiscent of Microsoft in the 1990s: all conquering, and yet widely resented. We accept Facebook's huge presence in our lives because there is no other option. But that doesn't mean we have to like it.

The reason why we don't love or trust Facebook is directly connected to the irritating way in which Facebook constantly switches the News Feed default. Facebook's agenda requires forcing its users down the path that best benefits Facebook. This is most obvious from the company's long history of unilaterally changing its default privacy settings in order to make user information more accessible to advertisers, and its steady push to turn its users into unwitting brand endorsers.

Even if our grumbling -- or the attendant class-action litigation -- has never reached the kind of critical mass necessary to threaten Facebook's primacy, it's still always there, a background of roiling discontent that puts Facebook's relationship with its own users into a remarkably unenviable class of its own. It is an amazing thing, the fact that we've given over so much of our lives into the hands of a company that we have no particular reason to trust.

Just in time for Facebook's 10th birthday on Tuesday, the company released Paper, a news-reading app. Reviewers greeted the arrival with cries of rapture, and after just a few minutes of playing with it, I understood why. In addition to the flow of "news" generated by your friends, you can now integrate a variety of additional streams of topical news: "Headlines, Pop Life, Score, Flavor ..." Navigating via swipes and taps works like a dream, and it all looks really, really good. Paper is an impressive achievement, further evidence proving Facebook is determined to be everyone's gateway, not just to what your friends are up to, but to the entire media universe.

But is that what we want from Facebook? A gateway to the wider world of media with Facebook as the curator? As I acquainted myself with Paper, it became to clear to me that the company was doubling down on the single aspect of Facebook I find most irritating: my lack of control over what I see. In Paper there is no "Most Recent" setting, period. If you choose the "Facebook" mode of Paper, confining your News Feed to items shared by your friends, you get what Facebook decides you should get. And you can take it or leave it.

I understand Facebook's goal here. Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear that he wants Facebook to be "the best personalized newspaper in the world." Ideally, this newspaper would be dominated by lots of hiqh-quality, good-looking content, instead of an unending stream of selfies and viral Upworthy headlines and weird Internet humor. Paper is designed to deliver on that promise; Paper is obviously the future Facebook would prefer: all smooth surface, no nasty grit.

Steve Jobs certainly had a vision of the future that he was determined to impose on the marketplace, and most of us applaud him for that. But there's a very profound way in which the customer comes first in determining how Apple products are designed that's different from what Facebook is delivering. Jobs' goal was perfection. Facebook's goal is to maximize advertising revenue. Amazon and Google have predicated their success on delivering exactly what the customer wants. Delivering on that promise is how they maintain user loyalty in a fickle world. But Facebook doesn't have to worry about user loyalty, because it will be an enormous hassle to replicate the community that Facebook has enabled anywhere else. In the same way that Microsoft's 90 percent share of the operating system market in the 1990s meant that the company could force all kinds of other crap on us that we didn't want or need, Facebook is enabled by its immense lock-in power to pursue goals that don't match up to what its users necessarily want or need.

And that's important, because if there's one thing I want out of my gateway to the larger media universe, it's a sense of trust. Why am I seeing this particular blend of tech news stories in my news feed? Why didn't I see that last update from my sister? I'll give the New York Times the benefit of the doubt (most of the time) to decide what's newsworthy and what's not, and I'm always interested in what my friends want to share, but I see no reason why I should put any faith in Facebook's news judgment, whether algorithmically generated, or curated by the real humans that Facebook is reportedly hiring to manage Paper's news flow.

But for both personal and professional reasons, I, like millions of other people will no doubt continue checking Facebook incessantly, and continue to populate it with my own constant stream of updates. But there's a lesson here that Facebook should pay close attention to. In the 1990s, it was commonplace to think of Microsoft as the Borg, and joke that "resistance was futile."

And then, all of a sudden, resistance wasn't futile after all — and Microsoft's failure to generate any intrinsic loyalty or affection became an obvious liability in a marketplace with multiple competitors. Facebook is sitting pretty at the end of its first decade, but who knows what might happen in the next 10 years.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Amazon Apple Facebook Google Internet Mark Zuckerberg