Understanding Facebook’s Scandals: What MySpace and the Telephone Can Teach Us
If you know your history, you can better understand the present. And boy do we need to understand what is happening at Facebook right now. Data breaches, Russian election meddling, fake news, Congressional hearings, oh my!
Let’s go back to 2005, when I was an enthusiastic grad student starry-eyed about these new “social networking sites.” News Corp.’s purchase of MySpace for $580 million put social networking sites on center stage1. MySpace was one of the most visited websites in the world2. However, as young people and advertisers flocked to the site, the press sensationalized the dangers lurking in the online shadows: sexual predators. Major news sources stoked the fear furnace with headlines such as “MySpace: Your Kids’ Danger?”3, “MySpace, Facebook Attract Online Predators”4, and “MySpace Faces a Perp Problem”5. Dovetailing the fear-inducing headlines was government involvement, with the Attorney General launching an investigation of social networking sites6.
Sound familiar? This scandal didn’t kill MySpace. It remained the top social networking site for another two years, owning 66% of the social networking market share in 20087. (What killed MySpace is a whole other topic.)
The recent intense media coverage of Facebook might signal a media panic. Kirsten Drotner, a professor of literature, culture and media at University of Southern Denmark, describes media panics in an academic article in 1992 as reactive social movements to the emergence of new communications outlets and the possibility of subsequent cultural harm, particularly to children8. In short, the media panic is a process whereby so-called experts, bolstered by attention-grabbing headlines, label a new medium as a moral or psychological threat to society. Then, politicians respond to the supposed public outcry, pushing for reactive legal measures. However, as time passes, the new technology becomes more mainstream and less threatening. The furor dies down, and pundits and politicians set their sights on the next threat to the status quo.
Society has witnessed similar media panics with other communications technology in the past. We see parallels with Facebook’s current plight with the introduction of the telephone over a hundred years ago. In her 1988 work When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century, Carolyn Marvin, professor of communication at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, recounts the fear surrounding the adoption of telephony9. A Chicago police inspector told the Chicago Herald in 1888 that “it is a well-known fact that no other section of the population avail themselves more readily and speedily to the latest triumphs of science than the criminal class.” At the time, critics were concerned that the telephone offered criminals a window into the private information of the home. In an 1891 edition of Electrical Review, editors “lamented that so many innocents should be ‘at the mercy of any trickster or scoundrel that may place himself at the other end of the wire.’” These fears feel very modern. See “Russian trolls.”
Does Facebook need to address the current backlash if it wants to retain its audience? Of course. As respected futurist Rishad Tobaccowala recently stated, if it weren’t Facebook, it would be another company. Companies such as Facebook will react or yield to a smarter competitor (or buy one — see Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.). Consumers will adjust their expectations and loyalties given their deeper understanding of the business of social media, but they aren’t likely to abandon the utility and entertainment.
Why if there was no Facebook there would be a Facebook and the world would not really be different. https://t.co/s48gewDjxO— Rishad Tobaccowala (@rishad) April 10, 2018
Did the telephone permit new forms of crime? Some. Did the telephone corrupt society? Hardly. Same goes for Facebook and social networking sites. Individual incidents will occur that support the critics’ claims, but anecdotal evidence is not a measure of pervasiveness. Advertisers dealing with digital and social media should anticipate periodic uproars; however, they should also anticipate the tumult to diminish as the technology is normalized.
- BBC News. “News Corp in $580m Internet Buy”. July 19, 2005
- Mack, G. “MySpace…Taking Over the World”, Alexa.com. March 10, 2006. www.alexa.com
- Hughes, S. “MySpace: Your Kids’ Danger?”, CBS News. February 6, 2006.
- Williams, P. “MySpace, Facebook Attract Online Predators”, NBC News. February 3, 2006.
- Shreve, Jenn. “MySpace Faces a Perp Problem”, Wired News. April 18, 2006.
- Oser, K. “MySpace: Big Audience, Big Risks”, Advertising Age. February 20, 2006.
- Garrahan, Matthew. “The Rise and Fall of MySpace”, Financial Times. December 4, 2009.
- Drotner, K. (1992) “Modernity and Media Panics” in M. Skovmand and K.C. Schroder (ed.) Media Cultures: Reappraising Transnational Media. London: Routledge.
- Marvin, C. (1988) When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.