Zuckerberg’s Lock-in Effect

What’s keeping Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg up at night? Is it imaginable that he, despite public denials, feels at least some kind of worry about Facebook’s prominent role in the dramatic reshaping of the political landscape and the increasing polarization that can be witnessed in many countries? Does he ever have doubts about whether the company lives up to its promise to “make the world more open and connected” in the long run? Could the 32-year-old at least occasionally ponder the possibility that the sweeping changes that are shaking the foundations and structures of modern societies, might be much more sever due to Facebook?

Only Mark Zuckerberg himself knows the honest answer. But let’s for hypothetical reasons entertain the idea that the creator and head of history’s probably most influential company at least wouldn’t totally rule out negative effects that his platform’s dominance has on trust in democracy and on the ability of public consensus-building – it tragically would not matter. Zuckerberg wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. And that despite him having managed to retain so many voting rights that he technically can do whatever he wants – as long as it serves the company goals, of course.

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For Facebook polarization is a feature, not a bug

Facebook’s business model is based on the monetization of user attention. The company needs to ensure that people are spending as much time as possible on Facebook, that they keep scrolling through the newsfeed and that they don’t stop consuming the content they find there. Content that triggers emotions works especially well for that purpose. It’s what people prefer to engage with and what they share with others. But this recipe is also one of the forces behind those echo chambers that divide people, that promote herd mentality and that encourage users to indulge in selective information consumption, seeking to reinforce existing world views. The consequence is a self-perpetuating dynamic which strengthens the connection between like-minded people but decreases their willingness or ability to connect with ideological “outsiders”.

As a profit-oriented company Facebook is first and foremost obliged to serve the interests of its shareholders. Therefore every sudden, drastic modification to its product in order to mitigate undesirable side effects on society would cause immediate, large-scale disruption to Facebook’s financial performance. Therefore it is not an option. Instead the company practices damage reduction by supporting journalism projects or by using the help of third party organizations to identify and highlight dubious content intended to mislead and to misinform. But these attempts won’t eliminate the root cause of the problem, which is inherent in the newsfeed system and revenue model. As long as the newsfeed remains the heart of the Facebook experience, as long as it has to extensively spit out personalized content that “hooks” users and generates plenty of ad impressions, and as long as billions will consume this, division and self-segregation of people are more likely to intensify than to lessen. Of course Facebook is not the only contributing factor to this, but it plays a key role.

Facebook’s powerful leader is powerless

Mark Zuckerberg is ironically becoming a victim of a phenomenon which his company has been benefiting from ever since its break-through: the Lock-in Effect. For users it means that hidden barriers to leave a service such as Facebook are so huge that most of them practically aren’t able to do it, out of often justified fear to be severely limited in their ability to connect with friends and acquaintances afterwards. Now the Facebook CEO experiences his very own version of the Lock-in Effect: Even if he would want to, he is unable to fix the damage that Facebook is doing to the world. His obligations as CEO of the company are weighing more than possible ethical and moral concerns regarding the protection of public well-being. Unfortunately, I want to add. Resigning due to doubts about the product wouldn’t solve the problems and would be an incredibly unusual move. Zuckerberg is a unique leader and person, but not THAT unusual. Furthermore, he feels responsible for the company’s 17.000 employees. That as well limits his maneuvering ability.

Again, just to be sure I am not misunderstood: It is in no way clear whether Zuckerberg actually has doubts. More probably he’s fully convinced of the positive impact his creation has on the world and wouldn’t even silently agree with any claims that point to a causation between concerning global trends and his platform. And in case a cognitive dissonance would appear in his mind nevertheless, he could easily calm himself by thinking of the Chan Zuckerberg initiative that he’s running with his wife, and which has the goal to “advance human potential and promoting equal opportunity”. Without the wealth that Facebook has created for Zuckerberg, such an undertaking wouldn’t be possible. But if Zuckerberg despite all odds would actually secretly start to regret some of the effects Facebook is having on people, then he could not change anything anyway. That’s my point here.

The only thing he could do is to steer future strategic decisions towards a business model and revenue sources that allow his company to move away from features that involuntary turn its products into tools that are so influential that they directly impact the outcome of Presidential elections. That could, for example, mean an even bigger focus on Instagram, WhatsApp or Oculus. But these type of adaptations to the roadmap take time, and they for a long time won’t be able to substitute the many billion of Dollars that Facebook’s core product generates every quarter. Also, which company would be so “stupid” to voluntarily give up its influence on the public debate due to moral and ethical reasons? That’s not part of the concept of Capitalism. Following its principles, competition and regulators are supposed to balance out and prevent negative impact of commercial activities. But in the case of Facebook, there is no competition, and the regulators have essentially been degraded to observer status due to the global character of the company’s activities.

For now, Facebook is “stuck” with its cash-cow, no matter what the consequences for society are. Mark Zuckerberg has no other option than to live with this outcome and to make the best out of it, no matter how he feels about it. That’s how the Lock-in Effect usually plays out.

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Photo: Flickr/Alessio Jacona, CC BY-SA 2.0

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