September 23, 2023

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This question may sound silly, but I’m serious: what is Facebook?

Did you know that Facebook has a dating service, online jobs, a version of Craigslist, a new collection of podcasts and live audio chat rooms, several Zoom imitators, a college student-only section, 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 goods directly through Facebook and the company’s other apps.

If you knew Facebook did all of that … Goldstar I guess. You spend way too much time on the internet.

These myriad experiments could transform Facebook from where we hang out with other gardening enthusiasts or shout about politics to – well, I don’t know what Facebook could be. (Facebook may not know either.)

The company’s constant tinkering begs the question: Is Facebook trying so hard because it’s eager to see what’s next, or because like its colleagues, it’s no longer as adept at predicting and then leading digital revolutions?

Well worth paying attention to Facebook’s reinvention attempts or whatever it is doing. We might not want to admit it, but Facebook’s choices are changing the way billions of people interact, the way companies reach their customers, and the strategies of every other tech company.

So what’s up? Why is Facebook stuffing its apps with so many new features? In part, I think, we face many successful companies with a mystery: is it better to focus on what made the company a star in the first place, risking irrelevance if it misses the big news? Or is it wiser to break new ground, but at the risk of tinkering so much that the company kills its golden goose?

I asked my colleague Mike Isaac, an astute observer of the inner workings of Facebook, if Facebook tried so many things because it was optimistic about new opportunities or because it was worried about keeping quiet. He said the answer was probably both.

On the optimistic side is the reality that successful companies have a lot of power to repeat their successes. Perhaps Facebook’s imitators of Zoom, TikTok, or Nextdoor aren’t great, but the company has plenty of ways to get the billions of people who use its apps to try it out until everyone we know zooms in on Facebook. Big Tech operates under a sort of Manifest Destiny – a belief that powerful companies can and should constantly push the boundaries of what they do in order to keep growing.

On the fear front, it may seem ridiculous that a company that is sued and investigated as too powerful should worry about failure. But Mark Zuckerberg, like many tech bosses, is obsessed with the history of technology, in which evolutionary changes have repeatedly ruined seemingly unstoppable industry leaders.

There is no guarantee that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp will remain the dominant communication or entertainment options for billions of people. Far from certain that Facebook, which generates almost all of its revenue from selling ads to companies that want our attention, can figure out how to make real money from podcasts or turn WhatsApp into a suitable method for a clothes store or a fruit dealer sells products.

Mike also asked a deep question about Facebook and Google that some executives fear the company is no longer inventive enough. Have big tech companies got so big and successful that they lost touch?

One of the reasons Facebook became the company we know today is because Zuckerberg and other executives understood before almost anyone else how the internet – and smartphones in particular – would transform human communication and provide Facebook with new opportunities to benefit from these interactions. Tech leaders aren’t oracles, but wow, Zuckerberg got some big predictions right.

And Facebook leaders most likely hope that all of these inventions will help keep Facebook popular and rich for years to come.

  • Big Tech makes its case in Washington: Alerted by congressional laws that could change or destroy technology giants like Amazon and Google, Big Tech has mobilized its lobby armies in Washington, my colleagues report. The pushback, also in a phone call between Apple boss and spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi, has met with some resistance from skeptical lawmakers.

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

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

Two words: professional label. Seriously, these people who play a souped-up version of the kid’s game are amazingly athletic.

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