Facebook pivots from the social network to the networked society

For tech journalists, Facebook’s annual F8 engineering conference is like the Coachella of tech conferences. Always based in the Bay Area (in San Jose last week), Facebook throws a two-day event detailing new developments in nearly all facets of its ever-growing tech empire.

I wasn’t there this year, but if you watch enough live-streams and follow the right people on Twitter, it’s pretty easy to cobble up a specific look into what this year’s F8 conference was like. But for the first time, I picked up on a mood from the boots on the ground that I never heard at a F8 conference before: fear.

This fear isn’t fear in the instinctual sense, where you are afraid of Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook causing immediate harm to your personal or digital safety. It was more the impending train crash kind of fear, in which one detects a change in the wind and can piece together the implications of that change.

Facebook showed it is more ruthless and ambitious than ever before. The friendly social network is there no more; rather, Facebook is constructing an Internet of Facebook, by Facebook.

On the surface level, nothing has changed. Zuckerberg was awkwardly cracking jokes during his keynote speech, which is the usual. But added with the context that the “Facebook Live” killer Steve Stephens killed himself hours before the keynote, it was quite macabre. The few sentences Zuckerberg spent on Stephens’ suicide — and more importantly his video-recorded murder of Robert Godwin Sr. in Cleveland — felt inadequate, regardless of how little time he and his team had to digest the news.

This faux pas, however, is not the bubbling ruthlessness I’m talking about. It lies more in Facebook’s monopolistic actions in crushing its upstart competition, like Snapchat. For months, Facebook adopted Snapchat’s image-video slideshow “stories” feature onto Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and Whatsapp. Then, Zuckerberg announced Facebook Camera Effects to help mesh photos and videos with augmented reality filters — whether it be 3-D texts, images and geofilters.

The filters have been Snapchat’s bread and butter for years and a real breakthrough in the saturated social media market. But now Facebook plans to swoop in and crush Snapchat with its enormous scale.

Another big announcement at this year’s F8 was Building 8, Facebook’s in-house moonshot laboratory. Building 8’s head, Regina Dugan, revealed she and her team of 60 engineers are pursuing a “brain-computer interface” that allows one to type in Facebook with their thoughts and prototypes to allow deaf people to hear through their skins.

Facebook has been experimenting with big ideas for a while, but it has stayed close to its tightly-knit narrative of connecting people with one another. A internet-beaming drone, for example, was a good example. But Building 8 is a R&D lab in the same vein as Google X, where anything is within grabs. Facebook is now chasing science fiction-esque moonshots that goes beyond its online platform, and that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

With over 2 billion users, Facebook realized that it doesn’t need to expend all its resources to sell themselves to attract customers or try to embed themselves into people’s lives. There is no social media company that can rival Facebook anymore. Just like a traditional monopoly would, Facebook is acting with the confidence that most of the connected world can’t function without Facebook’s products. It can crush competition without facing consumer backlash.

Perhaps that’s why Facebook can’t fix its Facebook Live problem, where murders and other heinous crimes are broadcast live without immediate or preemptive shutdowns: Because it doesn’t have the fire in the belly to mitigate the damage.

As Facebook fleshes out its own networked society, other online companies are in its crosshairs for the sole reason that it isn’t an exclusively Facebook platform. Facebook “Places” is basically Yelp. Facebook “Marketplace” is basically eBay. Facebook “Workplace” is awfully similar to what Slack has been building. Why go to any of these sites when you can stay in Facebook?

But it’s not just Silicon Valley competitors Facebook is gobbling up. Traditional industries like journalism are pushed to near subsistence levels. The Press Gazette, a British trade media publication, started a campaign earlier this month to urge the government to break up Facebook (and Google) from holding a duopoly on advertising revenue.

At the F8 conference, there is always one panel event dedicated to journalism and how Facebook can promote the industry. Facebook’s vice president of product management Adam Mosseri went on a charm offensive, reiterating Facebook’s commitment to working with the news industry.

Around the same time, a Chicago Tribune online editor wrote a blog post about how Facebook’s algorithm suppressed more than a third of its posts and shrinking its online traffic. It’s only getting worse, the editor warned. But will anyone care in Facebook-land?

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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