Facebook's privacy pivot won't get it any more likes

The social network must improve its utility in addition to addressing its structural ills.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

At its annual developers event, Mark Zuckerberg picked up a public thread that Facebook has been developing for some time -- that the company will make a renewed push to protect users' privacy. Its early efforts include developing end-to-end encryption of its messaging platforms, a focus on ephemeral data, and a willingness to work more closely with regulators (particularly if it can save them a few billion dollars in the near term).

But the CEO has not offered any comprehensive roadmap on how its vision of a future -- defined by privacy per his opening statement -- will evolve. It will require, he stated, fundamental changes at the company that go well beyond adding a few product features here and there.

That said, the Facebook event was rife with announcements of new product features here, there, and elsewhere when it came to Facebook's products -- new apps, cleaner apps, faster apps, and integrations among apps all coming real soon. Unlike Facebook's privacy foibles, which haven't changed the Facebook experience per se, but the content consumed in it, these are attempts to improve the Facebook experience regardless of content.  The company is also taking steps to make its properties more pleasant places to hang out in general that range from banning media personalities who espouse hate and racism.

But while Facebook continues to patch many of the negative aspects of its core user experience and content, it is making some of the biggest moves to date to improve the other side of its equation: Why use it at all, particularly if you're not a big sharer? Previous major uses for Facebook have included games, messaging and news, but each of these has lost much relevance, as games shifted to mobile apps, messaging was cordoned off and moved to Messenger, and the news feed has become compromised and thus less useful (or at least credible). Facebook was designed to be a vortex. The company itself has done little to purposely enrich their users' lives beyond providing a platform.

One way the company is trying to up its value in people's lives is through stronger promotion of one of its sleeper features: Groups. Messaging groups have been connecting online users since the early 1980s. By driving users to groups that interest them Facebook can not only help people expand their interests but offer a chance for them to break out of the infamous echo chamber that traps many of its users. Many groups have moderators, who can give abusive participants a timeout or remove them from the group altogether.

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Facebook is also bringing dating features to the US after successful trials in other countries. And even though its Secret Crush feature sounds like passing notes in a class of a billion eighth graders, dating would join shopping as a way that Facebook can actually help with a task as opposed to letting you navigate to the right contact on your own. As with its marketplace, Facebook's growth in these applications could increase competition with websites such as Match.com and eBay. But in this way, it would borrow a page from LinkedIn, which turned its network of professional contacts.

Despite all the knocks it has taken in the past few years, Facebook continues to see strong growth. Users certainly aren't fleeing at a rate fast enough to make a difference, even as the deceased begin to overwhelm the profiles of the living. Facebook owns a strong position among younger consumers with Instagram. For its namesake service must maintain relevance, though, its value must become more compelling than a fence marking a circle of peripheral acquaintances.

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