At its annual developer’s conference, Facebook announced a redesign of its website and mobile apps. Now, instead of a neverending news feed that’s designed to hook you, the new interface focuses on Facebook’s increasingly popular Groups feature and private messages, all of which let people communicate out of the public eye. Based on the sneak peek of the new desktop version of Facebook, the company’s new privacy-focused future looks a lot like another interface it owns: Instagram.
Instagram’s best feature isn’t its own neverending feed of images. Instead, Instagram’s ephemeral stories and direct messages have become the most engaging element of the platform, in part because they encourage direct responses from people rather than the mindless scrolling that Facebook’s previous design had encouraged. With this redesign, it seems like Facebook is trying to emulate some of the success it has found with Instagram by focusing on what Zuckerberg says is one of the fastest-growing parts of Facebook: Groups. Facebook says that 400 million of its users belong to groups that they find “meaningful.”
The website design, which will roll out in the next few months, features a redesigned tab for Groups, which aggregates all the posts from the private groups you belong to into a single personalized feed. Currently, Groups are hidden away in a sidebar, and the homepage shows a list of all the groups a user belongs to, making it difficult to quickly access the content inside the groups.
Visually, the redesign looks like Instagram, too. The interface shifts away from the blue headliner toward a white, airy aesthetic with Stories displayed front and center. The navigation bar is in the center of the interface, mimicking Instagram’s centered tabs. The gray background is lighter than before, allowing each element to float on the page.
The redesign is the first major move Facebook has taken to support CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that the company is focusing on private communication and privacy-focused features. A key piece of that strategy? Fully encrypting all of the messaging apps that Facebook owns, including Messenger, Instagram, and Whatsapp, and then merging them on the backend so that the company can more effectively track who its users are talking to–which coincidentally provides the technical infrastructure for Facebook to learn even more about people and serve them better targeted ads.
In a blog post in March 2019, Zuckerberg wrote about how the shift to smaller group communication, rather than public sharing, will herald a new era of privacy at Facebook. “I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform–because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing,” he wrote.
But it’s not that users are skeptical of Facebook’s ability to build messaging services that support private communication. The bigger problem is that Facebook has proven again and again that it enables developers to misuse people’s data, it inappropriately shares user data without consent, and it does not even store its own data securely (let alone your password). Critics point out that Facebook has been unable to curb toxic misinformation on its platform when the posts are public–and if they are private and encrypted, it will be even more difficult for the company to monitor the spread of malicious content, like the anti-vaccination propaganda that has led to the United States’s largest measles outbreak in decades.
If the Facebook redesign is trying to channel the principles that have made Instagram the fastest growing social network today, it will continue to fail in all the ways that Instagram is also failing: just like Facebook, Instagram has its own problems with misinformation and hate speech. A surface-level transition that tries to catch up to the way people are already communicating online–through groups and private messaging–isn’t going to fix Facebook’s underlying content moderation or privacy issues. Because ultimately, Facebook’s business model is built on learning as much as possible about its users so it can target ads, a strategy that earned the company $15 billion in the first quarter of 2019. That same strategy also led the company to set aside $5 billion for expected fines from the FTC. So unless Facebook radically changes its business model, the new emphasis on private communication won’t turn it into the privacy-focused company Zuckerberg claims it is.
“We are fully committed to the safety and integrity of our community,” a Facebook spokesperson tells Fast Company. “We’ve invested heavily in building tools for group admins and controls for members to keep their groups safe. We’ve also used a combination of the latest technology, human review, and user reports to identify and remove harmful public, closed and secret groups.”
According to experts, a true, privacy-minded redesign would provide ways for users to give consent about the company’s use of their data. Additionally, a tool to wipe your Facebook history, something Zuckerberg promised in 2018, still has not arrived. Earlier this week, I spent hours trying to clean my Facebook account of old photos–a process that currently feels designed to be as painful as possible. Without more meaningful actions like these, a redesign is little more than lip service.