Facebook Priorities: Privacy vs. Profits

3 min read

Facebook’s sharp decline in trust and usership over the last few years is not surprising. Between Cambridge Analytica, fake news, and housing discrimination charges, it’s no wonder that Americans trust Facebook less than the federal government, let alone every other tech giant.

We’ve written about whether the decline in Facebook’s user base signals doom and gloom for the platform’s advertisers. Ultimately, we think the answer is no. But a lot has changed in the last couple of months since CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be pivoting to a “privacy-focused communications platform.” Such a platform would prioritize private, encrypted messaging through Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

But what does this really mean? Are we seriously talking about retiring the Facebook News Feed and everything that comes with it? Public posting is what allows Facebook to collect the personal data that is so valuable to advertisers, so sunsetting these features would drastically change Facebook’s advertising-driven business and revenue models. While this is possible, it seems unlikely.

We have a better sense of the updates Zuckerberg has in mind since he unveiled a redesign at the Facebook developer conference last week. He re-emphasized a pivot to private messaging and acknowledged the larger shift in the volume of content moving from News Feed posts to group conversations and Stories.

Facebook Design Update

This redesign reflects Zuckerberg’s stated priorities: Stories, groups, and private messaging. But it still includes public News Feed posts. While Facebook may be shifting its platform to meet the growing demand for private communication, it looks like it isn’t ready to abandon the foundation of the behemoth social network that it’s become.

Because the question on everyone’s mind since Zuckerberg’s March announcement has been, “What about the money?” Where will Facebook make its money if becomes less attractive to advertisers by eliminating the ability to target people by every personality trait under the sun? It seems Facebook doesn’t have an answer for that (yet), which is why the News Feed isn’t going anywhere (yet).

Zuckerberg’s stated goals may be driven by privacy, but you can bet that he’s also driven by revenue. Facebook will continue to exist to make money. Lots of money. As long as its revenue model is based on advertising, Facebook will continue to make itself a powerful platform for advertisers, and that means offering targeting capabilities. As more conversations move to private spaces, that could mean a shift in the depth and precision of targeting, but Facebook could significantly scale back on the personal data it collects and still be a powerful tool for advertisers.

Facebook may be changing, but certainly not overnight. It’s the largest public forum in the world, and arguably the most powerful, and if a $5 billion fine by the F.T.C. doesn’t make it change its ways, there probably isn’t a lot that will. Facebook has evolved into an untamable beast with unchecked power, but one that 2.3 billion people use every month. So, we find ourselves doubling down on the advice our very own Alex Mattingly shared last year: Be helpful for your audience, do the right thing, and diversify your marketing.