The collateral damage of Facebook’s failures

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Written by Shira Ovid

Facebook he acts like a little kid who falls in love with a new Lego set but then gets bored. He is up to users and business partners to clean up the mess.

Six years ago, Facebook said its next big thing would be robots in its Messenger app that send text messages to help people order flowers or figure out which pair of jeans to buy. This idea isn’t a dud, but I guess a Messenger bot doesn’t pick your pants.

The company also got hot and then cool with a feature that allowed people to stream live from their phones and into a TV-like video hub called Facebook Watch. On Monday, Facebook threw in the towel on its planned digital currency, a project that forced government and financial establishments to respond but was half-hearted from the start.

Experimentation and failure can be healthy. For Facebook and other corporate titans, short-lived failures or fads usually don’t do much harm. (The company has rebranded itself as Meta, but I’m sticking with Facebook.)

But for the rest of us, Facebook stumbles may persist. Ask any business partner who retooled their customer service teams for Messenger bots, or spent their limited resources making videos for Facebook Watch, only to have Facebook’s enthusiasm fade.

This pain could be the inevitable cost of the invention. But particularly now, as Facebook bets the company on a more immersive future of the Internet, called the metaverse — it’s worth asking what we gain and what we lose when companies with the power and influence of Facebook persuade the world to follow them into a future that never comes.

In a way, it’s adorable how often Facebook gets excited about a new idea and then, well, moves on to another shiny object. Live video and Facebook Watch still exist. They just aren’t the high priorities they once were.

Other Big Tech companies lose interest in the things they used to love. (Hell, we all do this.) But perhaps no other company has the combination of Facebook’s expansion and its willingness to declare THIS IS GOING TO BE HUGE, persuade people to go along with it, and then… shrug.

It’s fine, at least for Facebook. But there can be a collective cost when companies and institutions respond to Facebook’s unpromising ideas.

The Federal Reserve does not have infinite time or resources to study what turned out to be the Betamax of cryptocurrency. News organizations, government institutions, and most businesses have limited resources; imagine what else they might have done if they hadn’t responded to Facebook’s latest obsession.

Even for Facebook, might the staff and energy it’s pouring into the metaverse be better spent doing more to ensure its apps don’t spread election misinformation or allow them to be misused by authoritarian governments?

I don’t know if there is a solution to the collateral damage of Facebook’s whims. Perhaps to begin with, it would be useful if Facebook presented its new projects as hypotheses to be tested, rather than as firm and permanent statements of its priorities.

Facebook’s fixation on the metaverse is different from its previous short-lived projects. For one thing, Facebook isn’t alone in the bandwagon trying to steer us toward a more immersive internet that further blurs the lines between digital life and reality. And at least for now, this change of course is a riskier bet for Facebook than for the company’s users or business partners.

But I can also understand Facebook’s inclination to believe, however briefly, that it can make its visions our reality. That is the power of big technology.

Technology of Apple Y Google effectively dictate how any business reaches potential customers online. When Amazon made fast shipping free, Americans began to expect it from everyone. America’s internet is becoming QVC because the tech giants want it that way.

We live in the world of big technologies. Sometimes that gives us helpful maps on our phones and online spaces for neighbors to gather. The other side of the coin is that when tech giants like Facebook give up on their dreams, everyone else is left to pick up the pieces.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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