Facebook earned more than $5 billion in profit last quarter, and yet it has spent much of 2018 trapped in a defensive crouch. This year was defined by brutal press coverage, internal strife, executive departures and unwanted attention from authorities. The company stands accused of various offenses: degrading politics; empowering despots; leaving users vulnerable to abuse; abusing its users’ data for profit. It is in a constant state of crisis such that its executives’ responses to scandals end up becoming scandals themselves.
But the single event most pertinent to Facebook’s future, and with the most explanatory power regarding its recent past, came in January, when the company admitted its flagship site had found a worrying limit. In late 2017, 185 million people a day were using Facebook in the United States and Canada. Despite strenuous efforts — you may have noticed more notifications lately — that number hasn’t been exceeded since.
The sheer scope and depth of a typical user’s relationship with Facebook are unique to the site, as is its reach. Should the company ever collapse — or become so clearly moribund it might as well have died — more than a billion people worldwide would need to unwind their relationship with the platform. Of course, we’ve lost plenty of networks before. One day, we’ll be done with Facebook, at least as we know it. Will it be done with us?
Myspace never reached anything close to Facebook’s size or importance, but in its time, it was at least conceptually comparable: a personal space, rich with photos and writing and communication, inhabited for what many of its young users would have been formative years, serving as both a record of their lives as well as a place in which those lives were substantially lived. Myspace.com is still online, but that doesn’t mean Myspace didn’t die. It’s best understood as undead: existing in some corporeal form, with nothing left behind the eyes. Now, after a long series of sales and corporate relocations, it’s a sleepy news and entertainment portal, owned by the magazine publisher Meredith and vaguely affiliated with People and Entertainment Weekly.