The Collateral Damage of Facebook’s Flops

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Facebook acts like a small child who falls in love with a new Lego set but then grows bored. It is up to users and business partners to pick up the mess.

Six years ago, Facebook said its next big thing was robots in its Messenger app that send texts to help people order flowers or figure out which pair of jeans to buy. This idea isn’t a dud, but I’m guessing that a Messenger bot doesn’t pick out your pants.

The company also went hot and then cool on a feature that let people broadcast live from their phones, and on a TV-like video hub called Facebook Watch. On Monday, Facebook threw in the towel on its planned digital currency, a project that forced financial and government establishments to respond, but that was half-baked from the start.

Experimentation and failure can be healthy. For Facebook and other corporate titans, flops or short-lived whims usually don’t do much harm. (The company has renamed itself Meta, but I’m sticking with Facebook.)

But for the rest of us, Facebook’s stumbles can linger. Ask any business partner that remodeled its customer service teams for Messenger bots, or spent its limited resources making videos for Facebook Watch, only for Facebook’s zeal to fade.

This pain might be the inevitable cost of invention. But particularly now — as Facebook bets the company on a more immersive future of the internet, called the metaverse — it’s worth asking what we gain and lose when companies with Facebook’s power and influence persuade the world to follow them to a future that never arrives.

In a way, it’s adorable how often Facebook becomes excited about a new idea and then — well, moves on to a different shiny object. Live video and Facebook Watch still exist. They’re just not the high priorities they once were.

Other Big Tech companies lose interest in things they once loved. (Heck, we all do this.) But perhaps no other company has the combination of Facebook’s sprawl and its willingness to declare THIS IS GOING TO BE HUGE, persuade people to come along for the ride, and then … shrug.

It’s fine, at least for Facebook. But there can be a collective cost when companies and institutions respond to Facebook’s unpromising ideas.

The Federal Reserve doesn’t have infinite time and resources to study what turned out to be the Betamax of cryptocurrency. News organizations, government institutions and most businesses have limited resources — imagine what else they might have done if they hadn’t responded to Facebook’s latest obsession.

Even for Facebook, could the staff and energy that it is pouring into the metaverse be better spent doing more to ensure its apps don’t spread election misinformation or allow authoritarian governments to misuse them?

I don’t know if there’s a fix for the collateral damage of Facebook’s whims. Maybe for a start, it would be helpful if Facebook presented its new projects as hypotheses to test, rather than firm and permanent declarations of its priorities.

Facebook’s fixation on the metaverse is different from its past short-lived projects. For one, Facebook is not alone on the bandwagon trying to pull us toward a more immersive internet that further blurs the lines between digital life and the real thing. And at least for now, this change of direction is a riskier bet for Facebook than for the company’s users or business partners.

But I can also understand the inclination for Facebook to believe — even briefly — that it can will its visions into our reality. That is the power of Big Tech.

Technology from Apple and Google effectively dictate how any company reaches potential customers online. When Amazon made fast shipping free, Americans came to expect it from everyone. America’s internet is turning into QVC because tech giants want it that way.

We live in Big Tech’s world. Sometimes that brings us handy maps on our phones and online spaces for neighbors to gather. The flip side is that when tech giants like Facebook give up on their dreams, everyone else is left to pick up the pieces.

A big month for video game mergers: Sony is spending $3.6 billion to buy Bungie, the company behind the Halo video game franchise. That comes after Microsoft splurged $70 billion to buy Activision, and after Zynga, which makes Words With Friends, was bought for $11 billion.

Semi-related? The New York Times is buying Wordle, the online word game that went viral.

A lot of business in being a front door to government services: Bloomberg News tells us about ID.me, a company whose software the IRS will begin using for facial recognition scans to prove Americans’ identities. Bloomberg also reports that it looks increasingly likely that ID.me overstated a claim that the company uncovered $400 billion in thefts from state unemployment insurance programs. (A subscription may be required.)

“Everyone in New York is betting on sports” because a crush of new online wagering sites sprang up after the state legalized the activity, New York magazine’s Intelligencer writes. My colleague Kurt Streeter has a related column about the heartbreak of sports gambling addicts.

“It’s like bread and butter, you know? It’s like a Thomas’ English muffin with some jam. Spreads nice.” I wish for more blizzards to hear again from Andy the Massachusetts snow plow driver.

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