Facebook and Google got rich. Users paid the price.
Douglas Rushkoff is the host of the Team Human podcast and a professor of digital economics at CUNY/Queens. He is also the author of a dozen bestselling books on media, technology, and culture, including, Present Shock, Program or Be Programmed, Media Virus, and Team Human, the last of which is his latest work.
Douglas Rushkoff: The reason why Facebook and Google are so easy to hack is because their business models are so easy to hack.
Both Facebook and Google, when they started out, said that what will make them superior to the things they're replacing is that they're going to be ad free. Because they knew, from square one, if they were going to have advertising, then the entire platform could be leveraged for the opposite of its original purpose. So Google, when they were fighting against Yahoo, they said, oh, no, we're going to be the people's algorithm. We're going to use the way that people all link to other things as the way in which we deliver search. And unlike Yahoo, which is basically ad supported and all this, well, what is Google now? Google is the world's biggest advertising agency. Likewise, Facebook said, 'no, no, no, we're not going to use ads.' We're just going to be there for people to be able to connect with one another. It's going all be social, so it's going to be honest and free. They became an ad-supported platform, too. So what's happening is their business models are being leveraged by companies that understand Facebook wants attention by any means necessary. And as long as that's their goal-- they might not be conscious of it. As long as that's the goal of the platform, then they're going to be used that way.
The only way to create a social network or a technology platform that is resistant to this kind of social anti-human abuse is to know what your platform is for and for that to stay part of your operation as long as you go. What is the app for? If you know what the app is for-- I know it sounds so silly, but if you know what the app is for, then you can't get as confused by your shareholder demands. Because oh, no, no, thats not what this app is for.
The other big trick in maintaining control of the purpose of a technology or a company is not to take too much money. Back when-- and I love them. When I saw Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter, one of them, on the cover of The Wall Street Journal with the number $4.3 billion under his face-- it was the morning that Twitter went public. I thought, there it goes. There's no way for this guy and this beautiful 140-word messaging app, there's no way for it to deliver that many hundreds of billions of dollars back to its shareholders. You know, $2 billion a year for 140-character messaging app, which is about what they make, that is great. Could you imagine? Grandma, I made 140-character messaging app. We make $2 billion a year. That should be the win. That's the success. But it's not.
Because the way that digital business works now is people take as much money as they can to get the highest valuation they can, and that's just a Ponzi scheme. There's no way to win. So you end up having to pivot your company away from whatever great human goal you may have had. Indexing the world's information, my god, what a great goal Google had. Its no longer indexing the world's information. It's become the world's information. And that's a very different thing. So now we live in Google, rather than Google indexing the real world. The map becomes the territory, and that's when we all get lost.
- Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
- Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
- But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
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