As Facebook suffered privacy scandal after privacy scandal last year, press and pundits across the world prognosticated the company’s rapid downfall, its days numbered as the #DeleteFacebook campaign would result in the whole world abandoning the platform over privacy fears. In contrast, others like myself argued that Facebook has become so integrated into our lives, so intertwined with how we keep in touch, follow the news, get business and governmental updates and conduct our lives, that it has passed the point of no return: we simply cannot leave it no matter how much we would like. In turn, Facebook has taught us to rationalize that our digital privacy and safety are obsolete notions. As the company’s earnings for the end of 2018 remind us, it seems the company’s messaging is working and we simply no longer care about privacy.
From its roots as what amounted to a college dating site into today’s 2-billion-user behemoth, Facebook has grown over the past decade and a half into an indispensable part of our lives. Even governments themselves increasingly use Facebook as a primary communications mechanism both to publish policy and operational information for their citizens and to hear back from those they represent. In some countries Facebook has become the internet itself, its walled gardens effectively defining the limits of access.
As Facebook’s grip on our lives has tightened and it reaches ever more deeply and intimately into our online and offline selves, the company has become immensely profitable by monetizing our behaviors for advertising, selling access to advertisers and developers.
Security and safety took a backseat to relentless growth, the company more concerned about maximizing access to user data than ensuring that developers did not misuse the nearly limitless access they enjoyed.
As privacy breach after privacy breach was followed by security issue after security issue in 2018, the company weathered a never-ending stream of negative press.
Yet, as Google Trends shows, even at its peak, US-based search volume about Cambridge Analytica last year was just slightly higher than September 2015 searches about Facebook privacy revolving around the rights of EU citizens and a fake copy-paste hoax. In fact, web searches about Facebook privacy have been trending steadily downwards since mid-2011, mirroring an overall decrease in search interest about the company as it has reached a saturation point.
It has been just under a decade since Mark Zuckerberg famously proclaimed that privacy was no longer a “social norm” and that as a society we “have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” It seems the young Facebook CEO’s words could not have been more prophetic, as society seems to increasingly accept that the concept of privacy and the right to keep one’s most intimate information private are relics of the pre-digital era.
It is a remarkable commentary on the state of society that the world’s reaction to the Cambridge Analytica story was a collective yawn. For all of the table pounding policymakers, protesting press and prognosticating pundits, after a brief flurry of news coverage, life went back to normal.
There were no mass defections from Facebook, no noticeable boycotts, no new legislation, no corporate blacklisting, no public renouncements, no corporate bankruptcy.
There was simply nothing.
Within a month of the Cambridge Analytica story breaking, the story was nearly through and by two months after, it was all over.
Worldwide media coverage mentioning both Facebook and “privacy” is back to its pre-Cambridge Analytica level, showing that despite nearly a year of privacy scandals, we’re back to where we were before. Even the media haven’t begun paying more attention to privacy.
Most importantly, as Facebook’s earnings show us, the company’s profitability continues to climb and it continues to add users.
Rather than the predicted user hemorrhage, Facebook has actually been steadily adding users after a year of privacy scandals.
Where does this leave us?
Putting all of this together, a year’s worth of scandals has yielded merely silence. That the media and public have moved on tells us that Facebook has succeeded in normalizing the idea of a privacy-free web.
It tells us that as Mark Zuckerberg assured us 9 years ago, privacy is truly dead.
It tells us that Facebook has become so integral to the very fabric of society that it can survive even the most catastrophic privacy scandals with ease.
It tells us that Facebook is now so important to our lives that even an entire year of privacy failures and security breaches and having our data stolen outright from the platform by hackers isn’t enough to make us #DeleteFacebook.
It tells us that Facebook’s ability to weather all of this without so much as a single new piece of legislation or economic consequence means it really has no reason to give privacy even the most fleeting of thoughts moving forward. After all, if all of 2018’s catastrophes combined yielded no harm, why should it worry at all about privacy in 2019?
Most importantly, it tells us that we simply don’t care about our privacy anymore.
In the end, now that Facebook has learned that all of the events of 2018 combined did not yield a single shred of lasting damage beyond a few weeks of bad press, it is likely that the company will move aggressively forward in the coming years with ever more intrusive applications, its hands now fully unshackled from any worries about bad privacy press.
Facebook is now so important that we no longer have a choice to leave it or ask it to change its ways.
In the end, in retrospect, 2018 wasn’t the Year Privacy Prevailed. It was the Year Privacy Died.