Is there such thing as a “user as a service” bubble

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Bad times for Facebook. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is still a matter of attention and some people worry about the consequences for Mark Zuckerberg’s company. But beyond the Facebook case it’s the “user as a service” model on which most web giants built there success that would be at risk.

When Facebook falls from its piedestal

When the scandal came public I read somewhere that “Facebook falls from its piedestal”. I took some time to wonder what it meant.

That Facebook lost part of the sympathy users had for it after that not ethic use of their data ? That a kind a trust contract has been broken ? I find it hard to believe that.

By saying it again and again users will eventually know that “if it’s free you’re the product”. It’s as simple as that. Facebook’s business model have been clear from the start and what had to happen happened, it’s how their business is supposed to be run. No matter Zuckerberg apologies as much as he can, it’s a conscious, deliberate, assumed and logical action from their part. The rest is a vague marketing strategy based on contrition that does not change anything to the problem. The only lesson Zuckerberg learnt is that he’ll have to be smarter in the future not to get caught one more time/

It could also have meant that Facebook felt from its piedestal regarding its clients which are brands. It’s a more credible understanding. If users leave, if they are more reluctant to share data, the product (us) loses part of its value and so does Facebook. It makes me think about an old post I wrote in 2012 about the businesses that don’t care about their product, wondering if it could lead to a bubble burst. I post written too early but that was not so inaccurate. That said I don’t worry about Facebook’s future, at least for a short/mid-term perspective. It’s too important in our lives today to see users running away and the #deletefacebook campaign dit not bear fruits. However the danger exists : the biggest mistake a disruptor can make is to think it can’t be disrupted one day. The day will come when planets will be aligned (a credible alternative + users rejecting Facebook) and this day Facebook may eventually join the cemetery of the fallen stars of the web.

Trust is like toothpaste

Facebook is not at risk for the times being but can be in the future. The Cambridge Analytica case made people begin to be aware of what is being done with their data. But that’s only a beginning.

I wrote that the business of data won’t exist without data ethics. Thinking that people don’t care about that provided they can use services for free in return would be a mistake. There is a trust relationship that looks as if people don’t care, and that’s different. But the trust relationship with Facebook may slowly die over time with the predictable advent of similar cases in the future and the growing awareness of users. Zuckerberg can apologize as much as he wants, that won’t change anything : trust is like toothpaste, once it’s out of the tube it’s impossible put it back into it. The problem with trust is that every time you lose a bit of it you won’t gain it again. There will always be a trace, a souvenir of what has been done.

Since we’re talking about trust and ethics, if I don’t think that Facebook is falling from its piedestal for the time being, it’s the user that is falling from its ignorance. Facebook and Google are the worse businesses when it comes to trust and ethics and most users have decided to do as if nothing happened and woke up one day realizing they’ve been cheated. It don’t know if it’s bad faith or stupidity but as users we just have to complain about ourselves.

The “user-as-a-service” at risk ?

But if we start with the assumption that Facebook can’t behave differently because it’s its business model and bet on a slow but certain lost of trust from users, we can’t avoid talking about the survival of the “user as a service” model on which most web giants (and smaller players) built their success. This model where users are the product being sold and not the client the platform cares about.

This model that generate most of the revenue of the whole industry can be jeopardized. Trust crisis, GDPR, everything is in place to make the personal data bubble burst. When the flock does not go to the abattoir by itself, the butcher must review his business model.

Everything is in place, but….

People saying they want to leave Facebook today, Google et al. tomorrow is one thing. Actually leaving is another thing.

A critical level of mistrust must be reached, what is not the case today.

Credible replacement services must exist. Today they don’t.

Both conditions must be met at the same time, what is unlikely to happen. Building a new service is something, generate enough revenue to survive until the tipping point is reached is another thing. And with what business model ? Leaving Facebook to join its clone has no interest. There is not ten or three alternative business models : it must be a paid one. Who would agree to pay to use Facebook ? Nobody. Users face their own contradictions.

The (relative) end of the digital Stockholm syndrome

The “user a a service” bubble is not going to burst but it can seriously deflate, what would be more desirable.

• It won’t work without trust and businesses will have to be more and more transparent et limit the use of customer data. That’s not because something is possible, because someone is ok to buy something that it must be done. It’s about trust and sustainable business and customer relationship.

• Law, GDPR in Europe and its future likes elsewhere, will also change the size of the playground and the rules of the game.

What has saved the model in its current state is a kind of digital Stockholm syndrome that made users the accomplice of the kidnappers. The spell is slowly being broken but that’s not the end of a business model. It will contract, not disappear.

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