Should Facebook Operate as a Nonprofit? #fakebuttons

Today on NPR, Noel King discussed the ongoing Facebook privacy concerns with former senior advisor at the Federal Trade Commission, Tim Wu. In the exchange, Wu made a compelling statement – should Facebook operate as a nonprofit organization?

The revelation that Facebook has been visibly active in apparent privacy controls for users, that were subsequently found to be nothing more that “fake buttons”, has left many contemplating ditching the social media giant – for good.


Nonprofit vs For Profit - Traffic sign with two options - subsidized unprofitable organization with no income vs  entrepreneurship and business based on earning money. Charity vs capitalization

Wu argues that for-profit social utility businesses are unwilling unable to navigate the intrinsic conflict between their two customers – users and advertisers.

Between 2012 and 2015, Facebook was on an obsessive crusade of profit generation, primarily through acquisition of competing social utility platforms and aggressive advertising strategies. I, for one, recall a time when my Facebook timeline had more pictures of cats than advertisements for the next big health trend under the auspicious of “sponsored content”.

But Facebook has failed to adapt to its users demands for fewer such posts. It selected advertisers over the very people it set out to serve in the first place.

As Wu points out, if Facebook is primarily concerned with its users, and connecting family and friends through technology, charitable status as a nonprofit is the best vehicle for this. The conversion of a for-profit business to a nonprofit is possible but not without its challenges. The business would have to accept a loss of individual control, it’s primary objective must be charitable, and any existing assets would have to locked in a charitable trust.

For a behemoth such as Facebook, this is not going to happen.

But we can influence the next big social utility. We can make choices to only support social media platforms that were formed as nonprofits in the first place. We can form our own nonprofit social media networks. Or, we can opt to disconnect from social media completely!

The next generation of technology users will, as the Gen Xer’s and Millennial’s before them, define the measures business take to influence end users and third-parties for profit generation. Perhaps this next generation will learn from our errors and keep for-profits accountable – or ditch them altogether.


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