Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

WhatsApp and Facebook and You

$16 billion. What does that even mean anymore?

Thu, Feb 20, 2014, 23:08


One of the things that’s absolutely ridiculous about the modern tech bubble – and that’s what it is – is the money. Guys in hoodies throw billions of dollars on the table for sport. With Zuckerberg knocking on the table Frank Underwood style every time another slice of humanity’s communication slots into his ever-expanding portfolio, the forecasters circle, trying to interpret the latest incomprehensibly gross cash splurge. Facebook is desperate to buy users. Facebook can’t innovate anymore so it’s buying up the competition. Facebook’s product sentiment isn’t sublime, so it’s gobbling up things people actually like to use. Facebook is paranoid about its ageing population that it’s desperate for youth, the social network with a portrait in the attic.

The reaction to such acquisitions is always the same. A billion dollars for Instagram! A load of hipsters taking photos of their flat whites! What a joke! Three billion dollars offered to SnapChat! A load of teenagers sending selfies from the top deck of the bus! So stupid! SIXTEEN BILLION FOR WHATSAPP! Ah here! Of course, the adage goes, that if you don’t know what a tech company is actually selling, then the product is you. The wood for the trees sentiment of both users of these products, and the observers envisaging Scrooge McDuck money-diving parties in Palo Alto, means that the actual consequence of expansion is lost. While Google – the Michael Jackson of the internet – is off designing cars and mapping the planet and figuring out how we can all live forever, Facebook’s desire is and remains communication domination; post, telephone, photographs, email and hell even smoke signals if King can build a game around ‘em, all in one.

In order to do this though, Facebook is frantic and needy. When was the last time you heard any of your friends say something positive about Facebook? It’s like the relationship we all talk about leaving but stay in because the breakup would just be too much hassle. People do leave Facebook, but they have to go somewhere. It’s not just Facebook Zuckerberg has is eye on, it’s everywhere everyone is going. And that’s why the social network has developed a hungry hungry hippo approach to the competition. If you build it, Facebook will come. Like Apple, Facebook has stalled on innovation. Its product hasn’t really advanced at all since inception. Sure, it added apps and news feeds, but there’s only so much you can do within the site that can’t be replicated by apps outside of it or by Twitter. It’s the suburbia of the internet, and it knows it. It’s where adults settle down and build their picket fences around the photo albums of their kids. But suburbia is repetitive. It’s familiar and safe. Sooner or later, you want to take a drive downtown. Facebook will be there to meet you. It’s starting to own the roads.

It feels suffocating. And it feels even more suffocating when every service you check out that you think is cool but separate – a newspaper comment facility, Netflix, Spotify – leverages its design by trying to get you to sign in with Facebook. Even when you’ve left the building, the lights are still on.

Years ago, we were all talking about how one monolith of a network couldn’t survive, and that the future was in the fragmentation of social networking. That has happened. People went to Instagram to share photos, and WhatsApp and SnapChat to share text and visual messages. Now Facebook is a network in itself, acquiring apps and products around itself, if not sucking users back to the mothership, at least keeping them connected to its orbit.

Facebook has never been good at the messaging game because its own platform is just too damn stagnant. Its dalliances with that end of online communication have largely failed. Even with mobile, its own app is clunky. If you can’t innovate, and if you struggle to imitate, then you have to accumulate. According to the New York Times, if you use WhatsApp, you are now worth $28 dollars. Congratulations. I know that measuring people in how valuable they are as data and personal information harvesting spores makes everyone feel cuddly, right?

I don’t know about you, but every time I hear some messaging company or picture app or confectionary-based game is bought for bajillions, it makes me want to go offline forever. There’s something so ridiculous about it all. The money is obscene. You are the product. You. Your information. Your willingness to waive your privacy and just hand it over. Your chats with your friends and what you ate for breakfast and what movie you’re going to see tomorrow night. I don’t care if that’s just the way things are now. I don’t really care if that’s worth another $16 billion (man, imagine what $16 billion could do if it was actually put to decent use in the world). Because even if the money and the sentiment evokes McConaughey¬†talking about fugazi and beating his chest, it still all feels a bit weird.¬†Hey users, ever get the feeling you’re being used? Duh.