In the 10th century, the Liu family needle shop in China ordered up a bronze plate (see above) so that they could print ads extolling the high quality of their wares. Adore them or despise them, ads have been part of the social world for a while. One thing that hasn't changed. After all, it was customers of the Lius, not the Lius themselves, who paid for the ads. Advertising costs have always been passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. In ancient China and in present-day Canada, the model is the same. Organizations spend large amounts on advertising. To meet this expenditure, the price of the product is raised.
That's not the only problem with ads. They can be a form of day-dreaming. They can take us away from reality and into the realm of artificiality. And ads can be used to promote products that we don't actually need or want. They may even encourage the sale of inferior products that would otherwise have to sell based solely on their qualities.
But a free market requires a free exchange of information, and so ads are going to be with us for time to come. The question is how and why ads will be delivered to us. for about a decade and a half now, the how and why of ads has been determined by one ad channel - Facebook.
Facebook is the largest advertising channel. By far. Period. The number of active monthly users in the second quarter of 2018 was 2.23 billion, by far the highest of social networks. Revenue in 2017 was $40.65 billion, by far the highest for an advertiser. More than 90% of social-marketing companies use Facebook.
Facebook is unique not only in its stature but in its methods for finding market segments for advertisers. It has singlehandedly rendered antique (at least, for advertisers) the notion of demographics and psychographics. Instead, it offers data about its users that can predict what those users will do, instead of describing who they are. Big difference, and much more effective.
This model of advertising means that you, the user, provide information about what you're doing, what you're saying, and who you're doing and saying it with. Not everyone believes that this is a fair bargain. The advertiser takes our personal information and then charges us, again, for the ads they send us.
So is Facebook, along with that charming model of charging us twice for advertising, really with us forever? Here are three reasons to doubt the "too big to fail" theory for Facebook.
1. The Internet is not the Web. This means that someone, somewhere, can start again. We can still create a new paradigm for social communication that does not rely on giving up personal information. It's possible. Think of Netflix. It's a dedicated platform on which you are able to withhold much of your personal life from inspection. A new paradigm offering social communication channels, creatd by an entrepreneur or by a nation-state or by a dorm-bound university student, could take much of the wind out of Facebook's sails, and quickly.
2. Think Standard Oil in 1911 and AT&T in 1982. These mammoth corporations were broken up by government into smaller units, in order to allow more competition. Sometimes companies get too big to avoid failing. The recent testimony of Facebook before the U.S. Congress suggests that the company is not always in tune with the most deeply held wishes and preferences of its users. These include, in addition to online purchasing and posting, online privacy and protection.
3. Small might be the new big. There's evidence that people might be tiring of being part of a super-large network. They're spending less time on Facebook, preferring to dip in and out of other networks. Their purpose is often just to exchange photos and chat for a bit before moving on to something else, either online or in the concrete world. Facebook is still important to many, but it's increasingly only one piece of the larger task of online identity management.
The needle trade is not what it was. Seems like most of our needles are now made in, uh, China. Some things stay the same, but some things . . .