5 ways Facebook can save itself from itself

It might not seem like Facebook should need a rescue mission. The site still looms large above its competitors in every factor from membership to revenue. In fact, the second quarter of this year was its most profitable, netting over $2 billion in revenue and surpassing bluechip stocks like Coca-Cola and IBM in total worth.

But recent events have shown the leaks in Mark Zuckerberg’s otherwise sturdy vessel. A massive backlash against Facebook’s real-name policy led to many labeling the site as prejudiced to members of the drag queen community, while also attracting the ire of the transgender rights movement.

For the first time, Facebook was confronted with a popular rival in the site of Ello, which highlighted itself for being the anti-Facebook by not selling user data or even hosting ads. While Ello has a lot to prove before it can be considered a serious worry, the site’s viral fame highlights the growing fears surrounding Facebook’s own privacy policies.

Perhaps most damning of all, a new report shows Facebook is bleeding from what used to be its most ravid user base: teens. A study conducted by analytic research firm Piper Jaffray showed teen use declining from 72 percent last year to a paltry 45 percent.

These are not small problems. Unless Facebook wants to fall behind in an environment with hungry competitors begging to take the site down a notch, it needs to make a few changes—some minor, some major.

1) Make privacy a top priority, not A niche interest.

It is no mistake the first popular attempt at competing with Facebook made privacy a chief concern. Ello, in its manifesto, states most “social media is owned by advertisers” and argues that its service “can be a tool for empowerment…not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate.”

So it’s also no mistake Facebook product manager Josh Miller strongly hinted at the possibility of an anonymous app in the vein of Secret. However, he seems to be reading the signals wrong. While Apple and Google unveil enhanced privacy features on their phones, Facebook seems to think “focus should be on what human desire you want to enable, not anonymity as the focal point.”

This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Privacy should be one of the most important values to Facebook, who holds unprecedented levels of data on its 1.3 billion users. Apple and Google noted seen the changing winds, while Facebook is stuck on how to raise money without selling out its users.

Ello will not be the last competitor to Facebook’s throne, and unless Zuckerberg & Co. can recognize privacy as a priority, it may end up being more than a chink in Facebook’s armor.

2) Move fast and break less things.

Zuckerberg has always built his company’s image around innovation and change, settling this ideal in the somewhat-worrisome motto “Move fast and break things.” But in recent months, Facebook has found itself outpaced by events surrounding it.

The controversy surrounding the site’s “real-name” policywhich abandoned choices for everyone from female impersonators to domestic abuse victims hiding from their abusersfestered for over a month before Facebook made even the slightest move. Just this week, Facebook issued a non-apology from its official Facebook page and made no promise to change the harmful policy.

Once more, Facebook heaped blame on “one individual” who reported users for violating the real name policy, an individual who popped up under the Twitter handle @RealNamePolice (who was interviewed in-depth by the Daily Dot’s own Taylor Hatmaker). This is sketchy PR work at best: An active community wants to know why their accounts are being banned, and you can’t muster up the gumption to take responsibility? Not even a press release?

If this seems like a one-off scandal, it’s not. Facebook has a long history of ignoring controversy until they fester under the site’s seeming monopoly. In 2013, Facebook not only ignored a growing issue surrounding photos of new mothers breastfeeding, it simultaneously announced defended violent content such as terrorist beheadings (a policy it’s upheld after sites like Twitter and even Liveleak banned such content).

While we could debate the merits of violent-versus-sexual content (or whether breastfeeding even counts as sexual content) all day, Facebook did next to nothing to respond to the controversy. In fact, up until a policy change this June, it still banned breastfeeding photos posted by the mothers themselves.

Sure, these controversies will go away and as the dust clears, Facebook will likely continue to have been extremely profitable. But by leaving these scars openand fresh in the minds of its usersFacebook is nurturing small but varied and numerous coalitions with reason to look elsewhere.

3) Show users what they are worth

Facebook’s entire business model is secured upon the behavior of its users. Like any good social media platform, Facebook will often open up its own hood and play around with different aspects of its UI or the News Feed algorithm.

In a telling bit of non-controversy, many users were shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn Facebook had done just this, altering News Feeds to see how seeing more negative or positive content influenced the posts a user generated. This ill-informed backlash might seem like the naive reaction of an unsuspecting populace, but it reflects a central problem of image for Facebook.

The site often feels like a monolith of public life, not the scrappy, fun distraction places like Reddit and Pinterest have become. What this can mean is Facebook will also often feel like an employer, an untouchable superior with little respect for its underlings.

And making users feel like the unwitting subjects of a scientific experimentthe study from earlier this year was published in academic journals, after alldoesn’t just violate some central ethics; it also alienates you from your users.

Facebook should immediately follow the example set by OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder. Via the revitalized OkTrends blog and his new book Dataclysm, Rudder is showing the good his users and the data he collects about them are doing for their own site. Whether it’s dating habits between races or what happens when you remove profile photos, Rudder is putting on full display the full value of OkCupid’s data collection practices and thereby getting ahead of any controversy it might spark.

Zuckerberg needs to do the same. Far from being afraid of sharing its secrets, Facebook should be happy to show off what they’ve learned after 7 years as the leading social media site. Imagine the troves of lessons we could learn about ourselves. It could turn Facebook from a snooping benefactor of our interactions into an open collective, a library of stories about ourselves and others that profiles themselves can’t tell.

Users should never feel used or underappreciated, yet this is exactly the environment Facebook has created. It builds on profits every quarter that come from its users, and the smallest courtesy it owes them is to show how it’s done.

4) Give the kids the keys.

No one who’s talked to a teenager in the last four years will be shocked to discover they’re abandoning Facebook in droves. What good is a site that could very well include your entire family when you have the open chatter of Twitter, the content of Pinterest, and the privacy of Snapchat?

Facebook knows this, but it isn’t quite sure what to do with that information. Earlier this week, Facebook stock took a brief dive after a Reuters report unveiled the company had no real plan to monetize WhatsApp, the messaging app Facebook bought last February for an astonishing $19 billion.

WhatsApp, like Kik, Yik Yak, and the unassailable Snapchat, offers a fair amount of control to its users, including anonymity and privacy. It should come as no surprise that teens want to be unmonitored and empowered. Yet in the face of teen growth on Tumblr, Twitter, and even Reddit, Facebook seems content to be the online equivalent of an afternoon looking through photo albums with your grandmother.

While Facebook, Inc. might be seeing teenage activity on subsidiary Instagram, Facebook as a site is well past becoming the denizen of co-workers and cousins. The solution is intrinsic to the other problems I’ve mentioned here: Respect your users privacy and give them more control.

One of the real draws within Twitter and Tumblr is the insane level of customization. Neither site ever treats its users like Aldous Huxley characters waiting patiently to be spoonfed content. They trust users to know what they want.

While the algorithm of the News Feed might seem integral to the experience of Facebook, why is it mandatory? Let teens manipulate what they see. Give them power to do more than “Like” something and trust the wizardry of the site will give them more of what they want. Consider it like turning off the “Shuffle” button and letting kids make their own social playlists.

Facebook can definitely survive on the use of corporations and your aunt’s cat photos. But if it ever wants to be “cool” again, it’s going to have to let teens decide what that even means.

5) Divide and conquer the clutter.

Many users were likely scratching their heads when their Facebook app demanded they now install Facebook Messenger, an entirely different app just for Facebook’s chat feature. While Facebook’s reasons for doing so are somewhat technical, the separate app will actually make Facebook as a whole far more efficient and failproof for Facebook itself.

While that’s just dandy for the engineers, Facebook needs to make itself more efficient for its users. The site has long been a mess of notifications, spam, and perhaps worst of all, games. It’s really in danger of becoming MySpace, except the clutter on that site came from giving users too much power of the site’s user interface. Facebook’s may come from giving too little.

What Facebook has created is an environment of enforced clutter with the off-switch buried within Facebook’s arcane settings. The solution could be to strip Facebook down to its essentials, creating a series of apps such as Facebook Events and Facebook Games.

This technique has worked well for Facebook; the Messenger app has held a long reign as the top most downloaded app in either the iOS App Store or its Android equivalent, netting 67 million U.S. users since August. Paper, the site’s little-used news reader, still received phenomenal reviews and showed the site could still innovate on old ideas.

It also wouldn’t be entirely unique. On Android phones, Google splits its Play store between movies, books, games, and regular apps. This allows for a far more organized user experience and, therefore, more loyal users.

Imagine taking every annoying Facebook game and shoving it under an optionable rug. While it might kill off the Facebook game market altogether, it might be a necessary sacrifice. When something so silly and agitating to your users is integral to your success, it might be time to rethink revenue practices.

This is all not to say that Facebook is doomed if it fails to make these changes, nor is Facebook anything short of successful. But part of sustaining success is responding to issues as they arise. Facebook is in qualified danger of becoming a seedy, boring, annoying place that only respects its users as eyeballs for advertisers, and it seems they barely notice.

The worst thing Zuckerberg can do is get too comfortable in his throne. MySpace, too, once figured nothing could touch its crown nor were user concerns and complaints worth validating. Google has also faced controversies and privacy concerns but has made them a top priority. Not a sidebar between milking advertisers. And Facebook of all companies should know you shouldn’t be learning from your competition; You should be teaching them.

Photo via Kris Krug/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.