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Chris Hughes Facebook break up call could lead to renewed growth hacking

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Last week, Facebook’s first spokesperson, Chris Hughes, got a lot of attention for writing a New York Times op-ed arguing the government should break up the social media giant.

It helped the headlines that Hughes is a Facebook cofounder – a title he earned by working for the company when it was still headquartered in a Harvard dorm.

Hughes’s principle argument is that Mark Zuckerberg is too powerful because he owns roughly 60% of Facebook’s voting shares, and Facebook owns a monopoly in social media. Hughes thinks the company should become three separate entities: Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

Maybe Hughes is right.

Maybe the industry and the economy would be better off if Silicon Valley had three more social networks competing for user engagement, advertising dollars, and publishing partners.

I’m not an anti-trust expert.

I am however, a human living in a country and world deeply affected by social networks, and as one of those, I wonder if breaking up Facebook is such a good idea.

I wonder if splitting up Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook – and thereby also inviting lots of new competition in the social media industry – would inadvertently invite back into our lives one of the most annoying habits of the early social media industry: “growth hacking.”

Back when Facebook was young, it was desperate to grow past first Friendster, then Myspace, and later hold off Twitter and Instagram. So it hired people to grow its user-engagement as fast as possible, by nearly any means necessary.

The mission, according to former Facebook president Sean Parker, was to understand how to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.”

One thing Facebook did was try to figure out the problem of human addiction – and then use those learnings to help make Facebook more addictive. The aim was to “exploit a vulnerability in human psychology,” says Parker.

The executive who lead “growth hacking” at Facebook was Chamath Palihapitiya. Back in 2013, he would proudly give seminars on the topic. These days he calls the insatiable push for user growth a “Ponzi scheme.”

Parker is also publicly apologetic over Facebook’s early years.

“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he said at an event in 2017.

So my questions are…

Is it really such a good idea for the government to break up Facebook and encourage an all-out, no-holds-barred war for your attention between Silicon Valley social media companies?

Or should the government just effectively regulate the one we’re all already addicted to?

Hughes seems to believe the best path forward is breaking up Facebook and then getting Congress to pass laws and create an agency to regulate the newly-competitive industry.

Read more: A Facebook cofounder has written a blistering New York Times op-ed arguing that Mark Zuckerberg’s social network should be torn apart

That sounds hard. First of all, laws are hard to pass — even Hughes admits congressional action would be difficult. Secondly, breaking up an existing company would face major difficulties in the courts. Third, Silicon Valley companies are notorious for doing everything they can to get around regulations in pursuit of growth.

So it seems like there is a simpler path: Congress could regulate the Facebook that exists now.

There may still be issues with political will, but right now both political parties are unhappy with the state of social media.

And you might be skeptical that Facebook would simply accede to increased regulation, but of course they would. Not for charitable reasons, either.

Regulations, while potentially protecting consumers, can also protect existing players and make barriers to entry higher. For similar reasons, Goldman Sachs favors regulation in the banking industry.

Former Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein u sed to tell people heavy regulation of his company was a reason to invest it:

“All industries are being disrupted to some extent by new entrants coming in from technology. There are some parts of [Goldman’s] business where it’s very hard for outside entrants to come in, disrupt our business, simply because we’re so regulated.”

To me, that sounds like something Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg would be happy to tell Facebook investors.

Regulating Facebook, rather than breaking it up, would prevent another desperate competition for user attention and advertising dollars. In other words: growth hacking, or maybe something worse.

During its early days, Facebook used to have posters on its walls that read in big block letters: “Move Fast and Break Things.”

As the company grew dominant – breaking a lot of things along the way – the posters came down.

Breaking up Facebook would give Silicon Valley and the world three new companies as desperate as Facebook was back then.

And we don’t need three, four, or five social networks moving fast and breaking things again.

Rather than going back to the “growth hacking” days, regulating the Facebook we have now seems like the best option for the government, Facebook itself, and the average person who relies on the social network.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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