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Keep a watch on Facebook’s plans

Its ambition to be like WeChat is a frightening prospect

editorials Updated: May 10, 2019 19:36 IST
Hindustan Times
Facebook,Instagram,WeChat
Founder Mark Zuckerberg, in (AFP)

Facebook — the social networking site, not the company that owns Instagram, WhatsApp, etc — is not as big as it once was. It may have hit its MySpace or Orkut moment, where its relevance in the everyday life of its users has dwindled, and it has not been able to attract the attention of the younger people that it needs to keep the mill running. Of course, it has other assets for the younger users of social media; Instagram ably fills the slot. But Facebook itself is no longer the most important asset that Facebook has. That, on top of the heavy dent in their reputation over the past two years, beginning from the Cambridge Analytica scandal has led to Facebook — the company — pivoting on its business strategy. Facebook now wants to be the new WeChat for the rest of the world.

For the uninitiated, Tencent’s WeChat is what the New York Times has called the “Swiss Army Knife” of apps. In China, WeChat has taken over everything, from social networking and messaging to e-commerce, from gaming to ride sharing, and from booking a doctor’s appointment to booking travel tickets. People no longer share business cards, instead simply scan their WeChat QR Codes; even panhandlers have WeChat QR codes through which people can give them money. It is this ubiquity that Facebook is now after. It aims to be more than an app; it wants to be the ecosystem. This ambition was visible in Facebook’s attempt to become the entire internet in some countries, including India, with their Free Basics or Internet.org platform. Through this, there was an attempt to create a walled garden of sorts that would have allowed access — at nominal data costs — to certain websites and services. But this was defeated in India through public action calling for net neutrality.

While it’s a massive ambition for the company to have, it flies in the face of competition laws and the need to resist the formation of one massive corporation that runs everything in a given sector. Even though in countries such as India there are a large number of people that do not yet get their news online, messaging apps such as WhatsApp have become the primary source of news and information — fake or otherwise — for millions of people. Founder Mark Zuckerberg, in a blog post ,admitted that Facebook hadn’t done the best job with privacy so far; but sees now that “the future is private”. As they work towards introducing SnapChat style ephemeral messaging, this could mean a reduction in regulation, since it would be next to impossible to trace origins of messages. Add to that plans to launch their own cryptocurrency and already having ownership of WhatsApp, Facebook’s new business strategy requires close monitoring.

First Published: May 10, 2019 19:36 IST