What Is Facebook? – The New York Times


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This question might sound silly, but I’m serious: What is Facebook?

Did you know that Facebook has a dating service, online job listings, a version of Craigslist, a new collection of podcasts and live audio chat rooms, multiple copycats of Zoom, a section just for college students, two different spots for “TV” shows, a feature like TikTok (but bad) and software that office workers can use to communicate? On Tuesday, the company also outlined new developments in its efforts to get more businesses to sell merchandise directly inside Facebook and the company’s other apps.

If you knew that Facebook was doing all of this … gold star, I guess. You spend way too much time on the internet.

These zillion experiments could transform Facebook from the place where we connect with fellow gardening lovers or shout about politics to — well, I don’t know what Facebook might become. (Facebook might not know, either.)

The company’s constant tinkering raises the question: Is Facebook trying so hard because it’s excited about what’s next, or perhaps because, like its peers, it is no longer so adept at predicting and then leading digital revolutions?

It’s worth paying attention to Facebook’s attempts at reinvention, or whatever it’s doing. We might not want to admit it, but Facebook’s choices rewire how billions of people interact, the ways that businesses reach their customers and the strategies of every other technology company.

So what’s going on? Why is Facebook stuffing its apps with so many new features? Partly, I think, we’re seeing a conundrum facing many successful companies: Is it better to focus on what made the company a star in the first place but risk irrelevance if it misses the big new thing? Or is it smarter to go off in new directions, but at the risk of tinkering so much that the company kills its golden goose?

I asked my colleague Mike Isaac, an astute watcher of Facebook’s inner workings, whether Facebook was trying so many things because it’s optimistic about new opportunities or because it’s worried about staying still. He said the answer was probably both.

On the optimism side is the reality that successful companies have a lot of power to repeat their successes. Maybe Facebook’s copycats of Zoom, TikTok or Nextdoor aren’t great, but the company has many ways to nudge the billions of people using its apps to try them out, until everyone we know is Zooming on Facebook. Big Tech operates under a kind of Manifest Destiny — a belief that powerful companies can and should constantly expand the frontiers of what they do to keep growing.

On the fear front, maybe it seems ridiculous that a company being sued and investigated for being too powerful might be worried about failing. But Mark Zuckerberg, like many tech bosses, obsesses over the history of technology in which evolutionary changes have repeatedly ruined what seemed to be unstoppable industry leaders.

There is no guarantee that Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp will remain dominant communications or entertainment choices for billions of people. It is far from a sure thing that Facebook, which generates nearly all of its revenue from selling ads to businesses that want to get our attention, can figure out how to make real money from podcasts or from turning WhatsApp into a go-to way that a dress shop or fruit vendor sells products.

Mike also raised a profound question about both Facebook and Google, where some leaders fear the company is no longer inventive enough. Have Big Tech companies become so big and successful that they’ve lost their touch?

One reason Facebook became the company that we know today is that Zuckerberg and other executives understood before almost anyone else how the internet — and smartphones most of all — would change human communications and give Facebook novel ways to profit from those interactions. Tech executives aren’t oracles, but wow, Zuckerberg got a few big predictions right.

And Facebook’s leaders are most likely hoping that all of this inventing will help it stay popular and rich for years to come.

  • Big Tech makes its case in Washington: Alarmed by congressional legislation that might alter or break up technology giants like Amazon and Google, Big Tech has mobilized its lobbying armies in Washington, my colleagues report. The pushback, including in a phone call between Apple’s chief executive and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is meeting some resistance from skeptical lawmakers.

  • “We are very free”: My colleagues and the news organization ProPublica examined thousands of online videos that seemed to show people in China’s Xinjiang region using strikingly similar language to deny claims of government repression. They found evidence that the videos were a coordinated Chinese government campaign to shape global opinion by widely circulating propaganda on websites like YouTube and Twitter.

  • How not to ruin your work life with technology: For people who are working partly in an office and at home, Brian X. Chen suggests which technologies to use (or not). Two ideas from his column: Consider taking a break from screens at the end of each week, and call colleagues on the telephone.

Two words: professional tag. Seriously, these people playing a souped up version of the children’s game are amazingly athletic.

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