Facebook's Nostalgic Mood Is not Helping

Facebook's Nostalgic Mood Is not Helping

Technology companies do not tend to look backward. Reminiscing is for old fogy companies; new economy superstars look ahead. Lately, however, Facebook Inc. has been moving into its past to inspire outsiders' confidence in its future. The company's musings feel forced and off base.

In recent months, Facebook officials and supporters have repeatedly flashed back to when Facebook overcame an obstacle that could have crippled it. The company's initial public offering coincides with a significant acceleration of people using the internet on smartphones rather than on personal computers. Facebook was caught flat-footed by the change. Its smartphone apps were clunky, and it scrolled on Facebook. The mobile shift was the biggest crisis for a young company that had weathered many.

What happened next is a central thread of Facebook's history. CEO Mark Zuckerberg celebrates his successful debut on Facebook. It dumped a successful advertising strategy to create a new one for smartphones. It worked spectacularly well. Facebook has been among the biggest winners of the mobile technology age.

Now, Facebook wants people to believe its mobile turnaround is a parallel to its current crises. The company's independent director, Susan Desmond-Hellmann, told Bloomberg Television that the board is confident in Zuckerberg's leadership, which she said was proved in Facebook's smartphone conundrum. "The switch from desktop to mobile is demanding and a huge change for Facebook," she said last month. Don Graham, the former Washington Post CEO and mentor to Zuckerberg, recently used Facebook's 2012 smartphone turnaround to illustrate Zuckerberg's ability to move mountains.

Last month, Facebook marketing executive Carolyn Everson said Facebook's mobile resolve. "I've seen a lot of transitions and the one-to-one talk about being a mobile company," Everson said in an interview. Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg compared their growth-challenged transition period to a previous revenue hiccup as the company shifted its focus to smartphones.

These flashbacks to Facebook's mobile revolution have the same goal: Facebook wants to overcome its new strategic, social and financial challenges.

"Remember mobile" feels like a mantra for Facebook. But I do not believe that there is any momentum in Facebook. Worse, I fear Facebook's history of successfully defending doubters is blinding the company to legitimate criticism.

Facebook deserves credit for making a smartphone strategy when few believed it would. But Facebook does not use its mobile history to instill confidence in everything. First, Facebook is not a reliable visionary about online trends. And second, its challenges now run deeper and are in areas where it has not been traditionally strong.

On Facebook's oracular abilities, recent history contains misidentifying or missing changes in online behaviors. I noticed recently Facebook bet big on live web video, as it did with smartphones, but this time Zuckerberg was wrong. Live video looks like a niche activity, not a dominant feature of online life.

It's also Snapchat, and not Facebook, that's the way to people interacting online in chat room rooms and video-and-photo montages called "stories." Facebook now says stories are the future of the internet, and it's pushing people and advertisers to the format. If Facebook is right that stories it wants to serve as a reminder that Facebook has a significant internet trend. Facebook has been wrong in this area, too. That's a useful reminder of Facebook's mobile rallying cry.

And Facebook's 2012 smartphone reboot was a cinch compared with its current challenges. Facebook now wants to protect elections around the world, weed out misinformation and encourage online behavior that unifies people. Nothing in Facebook's history shows it's up to this set of challenges.

The stakes are simply higher for Facebook today. This moment is different from the time when users initially revolted against Facebook's news feed in 2006, or when people grumbled about a separate app for chats. This time is different from Facebook's reboot in response to the smartphone threat. Facebook was right in those moments, but that does not make it infallible.

I've been overly confident Facebook. Despite many warning signs, the company took a long time to make it clear that it was not enough to spread its word of mouth.

If the lessons Like this, it's all right, no matter what, and then the bodes for both Facebook and the rest of the world.

To contact the author of this story: Shira Ovide at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

Google so figured out how to capitalize on the shift in online activity from computers to smartphones – a trend many people believed to make web searches pointless and irrelevant to Google. Google does not talk about this history very often.

This column does not reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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