Over a quarter of the world now uses Facebook. The company is finally coming to terms with that responsibility.
So it's finally happened. It took 13 years, but Facebook has gone from nothing to being used by 26% of the world's population: two billion active monthly users.
This is an astonishing achievement: to put it into perspective, its nearest rival in terms of logged-in users is YouTube on 1.5 billion. Yes, lots of people use YouTube while not being logged in, but given Facebook's business model relies on targeted advertising and data collection, that's not as important a point of order as it might seem.
"Zuckerberg's personal post on the subject was the kind of celebration you'd expect from a striker who's just scored the consolation goal in a 7-1 defeat"
Looking beyond YouTube, messaging apps WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have around 1.2 billion users each, while Instagram has 700 million. Those sound like potential rivals except that all three are owned by Facebook. If you look beyond Facebook's stable, things look relatively quiet: WeChat has 889 million, Twitter 328 million and Snapchat on an estimated 255 million.
Interestingly, though, Facebook doesn't seem to be making as big a deal about this as they have in the past. Mark Zuckerberg's personal post on the subject was the kind of celebration you'd expect from a striker who's just scored the consolation goal in a 7-1 defeat:
And Facebook's own newsroom article on the subject was more about doing good than boasting about the numbers. It uses phrases such as “meaningful contributions” and talks about “the many ways people support one another on Facebook”. You can even post your own personalised version of this horrendously saccharine “doing good” video, if you share your world outlook with the princesses of Disney stereotype:
Compare and contrast this with the message delivered when the company hit one billion users in 2012. It's short and sweet, but ends with the words “I am committed to working every day to make Facebook better for you, and hopefully together one day we will be able to connect the rest of the world too.”
And to bring you back to the present, this is Zuckerberg's first reply in the comments:
So what is going on here?
Facebook is growing up
For the first 12 years of Facebook's life, the company was all about connecting the world, with little thought for the consequences. But in the past eight months, things have changed dramatically. The trigger? The election of Donald Trump to president of the United States, and Facebook's role in that – both officially through their political advertising and unofficially through the cottage industry that grew up around fake news. “It's crazy that Zuckerberg says there's no way Facebook can influence the election when there's a whole sales force in Washington DC that does nothing but convince advertisers that they can,” former Facebook ad sales employee Antonio García Martínez told The Guardian.
Not to mention Facebook's current struggles at policing Facebook Live, which people are increasingly using to record crimes and suicides.
"The idea that being kept in your happy place at all times is in some way desirable is a particularly contrary reading of A Brave New World's dystopian outlook"
But it's more than that: there's the long-standing issue of filter bubbles. In short, Facebook cares about dwell time, and you're more likely to stick around if the site shows you things that you like. But the idea that being kept in your happy place at all times is in some way desirable is a particularly contrary reading of A Brave New World's dystopian outlook. Opinions are reinforced as your echo chamber repeats what you want to hear, ensuring that people with differing views seem not just different, but completely wrong-headed and alien. After all, everyone you know on Facebook believes the same things you do, right?
To this end, last week Facebook changed its mission statement. It's subtle, but important:
From: “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
To: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Today's muted celebration from Facebook suggests this may be more than just platitudes: a genuine realisation that when you influence 26% of the world's population, you have a real stake in the future of the planet. Given that Facebook previously told moderators to ignore Holocaust denial material because it “does not welcome local law that stands as an obstacle to an open and connected world”, this could be a huge change in the long run. But the company will inevitably find that changing 15 words is far easier than two billion minds, no matter how many saccharine videos those minds can customise.