Facebook is too big to fail

Will Facebook be with us forever?
Will Facebook be with us forever?
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
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Over the last week or so, Facebook has been embroiled in a scandal over reports that Cambridge Analytica, the data firm hired by Donald Trump’s campaign to build targeted ads during the 2016 US election, harvested data from 50 million Facebook users without their consent. Executives at Cambridge Analytica have been caught bragging on camera that they helped fix elections, and that it ran the entire Trump campaign. Reports also resurfaced the fact that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica worked side by side at a Trump campaign office in San Antonio.

Facebook has seen more than $60 billion wiped off of its valuation over fears that the revelations will result in regulations on the digital advertising industry, dragging down the stock prices of other tech giants as well. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered an anodyne non-apology, saying many things have already been fixed and more changes are on the way, amid repeated calls for him to testify before Congress. The hashtag #deletefacebook has trended on Twitter.

As the scandal and backlash escalate, we begin to wonder how badly Facebook could be hurt. Does its dominant position in so many people’s’ lives, and the sheer amount of money it makes, mean that it’s untouchable? Is Facebook too big to fail? Quartz weighs the options.

Is Facebook going to get regulated?

Facebook has been Silicon Valley’s Goliath for long enough that it doesn’t seem to think a David exists. (And if it was worried at all, it would just buy David or copy his every move.) But Bill Gates might tell Zuckerberg otherwise. In the 1990s, US antitrust regulators put Microsoft’s Windows monopoly in its crosshairs. Gates’ combative, condescending testimony to the Department of Justice, and the Seattle software giant’s dismissal of  its arguments, made it public enemy number one for the US regulators who ultimately clipped its wings.  

Although the order to break up Microsoft was overturned by appeal, the company was never the same. The 21-year fight meant Microsoft was forced to curb aggressive practices in new markets. Products were made interoperable. The 2002 consent decree left Microsoft in the cold during the next evolution of the web, giving oxygen to rising stars like Google and Apple. Even more importantly, its culture changed. A hard-charging, risk-taking startup became a timid and declining company that has only recently seen its fortunes revive.  

Facebook would be wise not to assume that regulators will play any nicer this time around. Microsoft’s sins never rose to enabling hostile nations to meddle in US presidential election. Microsoft’s lock on corporate America was probably never as dominant as Facebook’s control of advertising on social media. In February, Gates warned Silicon Valley that its time without government oversight was probably over. “The companies need to be careful that they’re not … advocating things that would prevent government from being able to, under appropriate review, perform the type of functions that we’ve come to count on,” he said. When asked if he sees that happening now, he replied, “Oh, absolutely.”

The lessons from Microsoft are that you don’t need to win an antitrust case to destroy a company, or put it on its heels for a generation. You probably can’t “break up” Facebook, but you can turn it into a timid shadow of its former self. A few choice rules under a consent decree would be all it takes: for example, no more acquisitions of companies like Instagram and WhatsApp. (But then, it still has those companies under its belt already.) 

Is Facebook going to lose users?

Following the latest revelations, many people began declaring on other social networks that they were going to take a break from Facebook or delete it entirely. It’s definitely not a tiny group of dissenters—and it may very well turn out to be the largest exodus Facebook has ever faced. People didn’t trust Facebook to begin with.

What’s more, it follows already falling user numbers in the US and Canada, the company’s most profitable markets, and slowing user growth overall. However, when you consider just how large Facebook is, even if a million people left the platform in protest (which is about how many daily users the company lost in the US and Canada in the last quarter), it would be only 0.05% of its user base.

It’s hard to leave Facebook. It’s become such an entrenched part of people’s lives—a trove of a decade’s worth of memories, a place to find everyone you’d ever met, a digital passport of sorts, and a way to connect with your community.

More importantly, as others have argued, leaving Facebook is a privilege, one that many, both in developed countries and especially in emerging markets, simply cannot afford. People use Facebook for work, they use it for business. In many countries, the platform is synonymous with the internet, and leaving it can mean cutting yourself off from your only source of information.

What we might see is a slow erosion of the user base. Not even half of Americans aged 12-17 are on the platform, and not much suggests they’ll sign up when they’re older. The user base is aging, and that’s never a good sign. But then again, kids still love Facebook-owned Instagram, and even many in the #deletefacebook faction can’t bring themselves to leave the photo-sharing app. And WhatsApp, which 1.5 billion people use every month, and many rely on as their primary means of communication, is not going anywhere. (Though, both notably and oddly, one of its founders is among those encouraging people to delete Facebook.)

Will Facebook lose customers?

One thing the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica mess has made abundantly clear is that users aren’t Facebook’s customers—advertisers are. The erosion of Facebook’s user base has driven some brands away from Facebook.

But most major marketers will need to see much bigger user drop offs before turning their backs a platform with Facebook’s reach. There would need to be double-digit percentage declines, and a substantial drop in usage among those still on the platform for advertisers to leave en masse, said Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research.

“They have such a big platform that at this stage you don’t want to bet against the business,” said Wieser, one of the only analysts to have a “sell” rating on Facebook shares. “We’d have to see substantial erosion in the user base, and I don’t mean millions of users.”

Public backlash probably won’t drive advertisers away either, as it did on YouTube when ads were featured alongside extremist videos and videos that exploited children. The unsavory data harvesting on Facebook happens behind the scenes and is hard to tie to any one advertiser. And ad targeting is a major selling point of Facebook to marketers in the first place.

“Advertisers were already doing something not that far removed from Cambridge Analytica,” said Wieser. “You can’t shame any one advertiser because all advertisers were doing this.”

A few smaller advertisers, like Mozilla and Sonos, said this week that they would suspend Facebook ads to show customers how seriously they take data privacy. But they’ll be back. Mozilla, which told Quartz its annual Facebook budget was in the “low seven-digit range,” or about 10% of its overall marketing spend, said it will return when the platform is more transparent about how its data is being collected and used, especially by third-party apps. Speaker brand Sonos is pulling advertising from Facebook’s platforms, as well as Google and Twitter, for one week.

Even if a big advertiser like Procter & Gamble or Coca-Cola was so irked by Facebook’s methods that they decided to abandon ship—and the domino effect led others to follow—big change wouldn’t come overnight. It would take a quarter or two to shift that spending. More practically, brands would start to rethink where they put their money when the big fall and holiday seasons come around.

What’s more likely is that advertisers will reassess how they’re using Facebook in light of the data privacy uproar. They’ll play closer attention to their tracking methods to make sure they don’t become the next Cambridge Analytica.

“There’s already a level of scrutiny, but brands are also under a lot of pressure,” said Michael Horn, managing director of data science at the digital agency Huge. “They don’t want to pull back from a massively abundant source of audience. … In the end, it might lead to money being spent in different places or just in different ways within the same platform.”

Will Facebook lose anything at all?

Is this the beginning of the end for Facebook? Will advertisers and users start fleeing the platform, now that they realize just how little Facebook seems to care about individuals’ privacy? When it comes to dominant companies having their position challenged, we have, in some ways, been here before.

Many US tech giants have faced what now may await Facebook. As Microsoft spent a large part of the late-1990s and 2000s fighting antitrust suits against its monopolistic position in computer software. As that happened, it missed the mobile revolution, failing to effectively pivot from desktop to smartphone software.

Around the same time, Yahoo, once a dominant search engine and email provider, failed to see the threat of Google and mobile search. At its peak, it was worth over $100 billion, but was sold for parts to Verizon in 2016 for less than $5 billion. Another US giant, IBM, ceded its dominance when it was still trying to sell mainframes to a computer market that had shifted to PCs. In all cases, users fled the platforms in search of better options. Microsoft was able to recover, thanks to smart leadership and new business lines; Yahoo could not; and IBM has spent the better part of a decade trying to figure out which direction to pivot toward while relying on legacy businesses for revenue.

But there has really never been an internet company quite like Facebook. MySpace, the original social-networking phenomenon, only had around 100 million users at its peak. That’s a twentieth of Facebook’s current size. There are around 3.8 billion internet users, and 2.1 billion are Facebook users, meaning a majority of people on the internet at some point each month check Facebook. It also controls Instagram, which has 800 million users, and WhatsApp, which has 1.3 billion users.

Facebook generated over $40 billion in revenue in 2017. Its market capitalization is currently around $460 billion, even with the massive stock sell-off that took place last week. According to its most recent earnings statement, it has about $10 billion in total liabilities, but about $84 billion in assets. That means that even if Facebook somehow lost all its advertisers and users over this debacle, it would still be able to keep the lights on for a long time.

Part of the business concern over the current scandal is that Facebook would lose its most valuable users if there’s an exodus of Western users. The global average revenue per user is around $6 per quarter, but for users based in North America, it’s nearly $27 per quarter. In the developing world, where many of Facebook’s newer users are found, Facebook generates significantly less revenue: Outside of Europe, Asia, and North America, the average revenue per user is just $2 per quarter.

It’ll be some time before we see any financial ramifications from the Cambridge Analytica fallout. Facebook, like just about every other public company, reports its earnings quarterly, so most likely, we won’t hear anything until the end of April or early May, when Facebook traditionally reports on its first quarter results. As we’ve argued, it’s unlikely that there will have been much advertiser or user exodus by then. But in the months and years ahead, will we see any change to Facebook’s business? Even if users decamp, there isn’t anywhere particularly great to leave to that isn’t Facebook-owned. And as BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz pointed out, Facebook actually went up in app-store rankings this week, so it doesn’t really seem like the #deletefacebook movement has had much of an impact yet.

Perhaps, over time, this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many users, or perhaps they’ll realize that this is just how life on the internet is, and decide being connected to everyone they’ve ever known and loved is worth being exploited. Or perhaps, as some analysts believe, Facebook will become the next MySpace and we will all eventually get bored and move on. But it feels like it would take a lot to lose 2 billion people overnight.