Silicon Valley's best cover band: Facebook

Playing other companies' greatest hits is a strategy.

Facebook has become Silicon Valley’s best cover band, playing the greatest hits of other tech companies.

Today, the company will introduce Instagram Reels, a TikTok carbon copy, to the U.S. and other nations after slowly rolling it out in other regions.

Per NBC News:

Like TikTok, Instagram Reels lets users make and share 15-second video clips set to a vast catalogue of music. Like TikTok, users can also borrow and remix audio from other people's videos. And, like TikTok, users could see their clips go viral in a "Featured Reels" section of the most popular videos.

For its size, as well as its constant patent applications, it’s telling that Facebook is often the Eric Clapton to other social media companies’ Jimi Hendrix; both transformative guitarists, but one is creative (Clapton is a blues guitarist that was creative with the medium), the other innovative (Jack Bruce, who played with Clapton in Cream: “Eric was a guitar player. Jimi was some sort of force of nature.”) 

Over the last several years, Facebook, the company that wrote the social media playbook on everything from advertising to algorithms, has relied on what could loosely be called a creative strategy, but more akin to a copying strategy for product development, as opposed to an innovative strategy.

Take Instagram Stories, a feature that lets users post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. Facebook also implemented vanishing message options in Instagram and Messenger. And let’s not forget Instagram’s face filters. In other words, Snapchat. 

Take Messenger Rooms, a feature that, as Recode wrote in April, “looks and works a lot like the popular (but troubled) video chat app Zoom. You might even say Facebook ripped off all the good features that made Zoom so successful while dumping the ones that made it so controversial. Facebook does this all the time.”

Indeed.

In 2017, the Wall Street Journal, reporting on how Facebook was planning to release its version of Houseparty, a social video app, wrote about Mark Zuckerberg’s paranoia of competition: 

Facebook uses an internal database to track rivals, including young startups performing unusually well, people familiar with the system say. The database stems from Facebook’s 2013 acquisition of a Tel Aviv-based startup, Onavo, which had built an app that secures users’ privacy by routing their traffic through private servers. The app gives Facebook an unusually detailed look at what users collectively do on their phones, these people say.

The tool shaped Facebook’s decision to buy WhatsApp and informed its live-video strategy, they say. Facebook used Onavo to build its early-bird tool that tips it off to promising services and that helped Facebook home in on Houseparty.

At an all-hands meeting in 2017, the WSJ and others reported, Zuckerberg allegedly said: “Don’t be too proud to copy.”

At this point, I could spend several thousand words on Facebook’s growth as a company, from scrappy startup to behemoth that buys competitors, and if it can’t, just copies them. 

(Side note: all tech companies copy from its competitors, perhaps trying to live Picasso’s quote, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”)

But imagine if Facebook used its product development for something that can serve both its mission statement and its almost 3 billion users. 

For a reminder, here’s Facebook’s mission:

Founded in 2004, Facebook's mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

So, what if Facebook took its billions of dollars and R&D mentality and applied it to the pandemic? Whether that’s something like using the technology for contact-tracing or teaming up with governments and research institutions to find a vaccine? It could fly solo or join with other companies like Apple and Google already doing contact-tracing. 

On contact-tracing, the Boston Globe laid out what that could look like:

Facebook has been slammed for not protecting individuals’ privacy. That may make some people shy about declaring their COVID-19 status. However, this can be an opportunity for Facebook to redeem itself. Facebook should guarantee that users dictate the level of disclosure — including providing the tip anonymously to contacts (as has been successfully done for sexually transmitted diseases by other companies) or providing a centralized mechanism if users ask that it be shared with health care workers. As Google and Apple have agreed to do, Facebook can openly publish information detailing the mechanics of the contact tracing so users can verify that the information they provide is indeed being kept private. The government could do its part by mandating that health insurance companies cannot discriminate on the basis of self-declared symptoms.

With a Facebook network of awareness, recommendations are grounded in the specific circumstances of a user’s life and can be easily updated with new data. While the 14 day quarantine is correct for exposure to symptoms, if a person actually has COVID-19 symptoms, the quarantine guidelines change, based on their reported symptoms. Facebook could make it such that when people report symptoms, the day counter adjusts accordingly.

For a company that has, many argue, lost the plot, using its platform (both literally and figuratively) to assist, if not lead in corporate responsibility in a unique way, society in the most important of ways and allow Facebook to execute on its mission of building community and bringing the world closer together. 

If Silicon Valley is a place where people go work for companies that promise to make the world a better place, the current moment seems like a pretty good time to flex that humanitarian muscle. 

Also, imagine the good press. 

The next time Zuckerberg gets dragged to Washington for some privacy breach or taken to the shed for allowing Nazism to thrive on the platform, he can say, “Well, we did create a vaccine for the coronavirus” instead of relying on playing HIS greatest hits:

“We know we can do better;” “We’ve lost the trust of our users and we need to get that back;” “We did a bad job of explaining.”  

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Nirvana, “All Apologies”

Some interesting links:

  • ‘Cancel culture’ only shows who the con artists are (Mel Magazine)

  • Hackers Convinced Twitter Employee to Help Them Hijack Accounts (Vice)

  • British Vogue Editor Says He Was ‘Racially Profiled’ by the Magazine’s Security (NYT)

  • Record number of Americans buying guns (WSJ)

  • Legal support for Substack writers (Substack)

  • Deepfake used to attack activist couple shows new disinformation frontier (Reuters)