Reaching over 2 billion souls globally (calculated as the users the company deems active monthly), Facebook touches the lives of a large swath of humanity. In Menlo Park however, a battle is underway for the very soul of the company in what is turning out to be a drama of Faustian proportions. With unassailable incumbency in the social networking arena, Facebook has access to more individual personal data than any other corporation, government, or monarchy in history. This (quasi) omniscience is remunerative, as evidenced by Facebook’s $40 billion in revenue and over $400 billion in enterprise value. However, because Facebook’s data is collected through the voluntary participation of its users, the utility that users receive from the platform must always exceed the (implicit) price they pay.
Thus far Facebook has ‘monetized’ its users through benign advertising underwritten by free-market economic entities, corporations seeking to sell their wares to a (mostly) willing audience. But through the Cambridge Analytica episode it has become clear that another actor has emerged on the stage, with motives that go beyond simple free-market commercialism. The task at hand for Facebook is to convince its users that it does not wish to take the devil’s bargain being offered by this new protagonist.
If Facebook can reassure its users that it will merely sell them, without selling them out, then the company’s upward trajectory in users and revenues might well be maintained. And the rewards for this will be rich, as much of these incremental revenues will fall to the bottom line. Facebook has more than doubled its revenues in the past two years. If it can grow revenue by only another 50%, there is no reason to believe that its net income would not almost double to $30 billion, which would put the stock at 14x earnings (excluding Facebook’s massive cash hoard). This is an attractive valuation for one of the cornerstones of the modern digital economy.
However, Facebook’s renouncement of the devil, as currently embodied in Russian political machinations or in other future incarnations, will not be simple to effect, either technologically or philosophically. To do so Facebook would have to selectively weed out specific advertising and content, an act that if undertaken flippantly verges on the brink of censorship. And surely, however it may address the problem, Facebook will have to abjure the stance of disinterested neutrality that has thus far allowed tech companies to escape liability for the activities that occur on their platforms.
Perhaps Facebook’s contemporary Google was prescient in its espousal of the motto “don’t be evil”, even if only as a public relations tactic. Facebook would be well-served to take that advice.