Yesterday was Facebook’s big blockchain day. It finally went public with its plans to upend the global payments industry by introducing a new program called Libra, which would be both its own digital currency and a financial platform. Users will supposedly be able to pay for things with Libra, store the coin in their own digital wallets, and transfer money to anyone else—wherever they are. It’s certainly an ambitious plan.
But Facebook has many hurdles to overcome. For one, there’s the adoption element; the company needs to convince people to, well, actually use Libra. It also needs real industry support. Yes, some names like Mastercard and Paypal have signed on as “founding members,” but no bank has tied its name to Libra nor has any other big tech platform like Apple and Amazon. Libra has the distinct possibility of failing before it catches on.
Which is why it may be helpful to look at recent history to contextualize this latest launch. Many think of Facebook as some sort of unstoppable force—the sometimes nefarious platform used by nearly everyone in the world. True, Facebook is quite ubiquitous, with over 2.38 billion monthly users worldwide, but that doesn’t mean everything it’s launched has stuck. The company has had many flops during its digital tenure. Here are a few of its biggest failures:
In 2012, Facebook launched the “Poke” app as an attempt to mimic Snapchat. Historically, Facebook’s strategic playbook has been to either buy or copy the competitors. In this case, it didn’t work. After two years, the company took Poke off the App Store and went back to the drawing board with how it could overtake its social media nemesis.
Despite its first misstep, Facebook tried to persevere. It launched another ephemeral messaging app aimed directly at Snapchat, this one called Slingshot. But this one didn’t take off either. A year later, Facebook killed the stand-alone Slingshot app—along with other projects called Room and Riff which, unsurprisingly, didn’t take off either.
This may be the feature most similar to what Libra is trying to achieve. Since 2015, Facebook has tried to facilitate digital cash payments through its Messenger app. The idea was that people already chatting on Messenger could also send money, similar to Venmo. Facebook, however, ran into government approval issues. While it was able to roll it out in the U.S. (and users in the country still can send cash to each other), the service never took off in Europe. Ultimately, Facebook announced its plans to sunset Messenger payments to users in the U.K. and France earlier this year. Libra, it seems, is a way for Facebook to still tackle this problem using the blockchain as a loophole to circumvent financial regulation.
In 2011, Facebook decided it needed to compete with Groupon. And so it launched Deals, a service that looked a heckovalot like the once-popular Groupon. Deals rolled out to many U.S. cities over a few months, and then Facebook decided to kill the project only four months after it launched.
This is another now-dead service that launched a little bit before Deals. Places was very clearly aimed at Foursquare, which was rising in popularity at the time (2010). It let users check in to physical places and tag friends in a nearly identical fashion to its then competitor. Then, a year later, Facebook decided to stop offering the Places function on its own and instead integrate checking in to its overall platform. It was a clear sign that the project didn’t go according to plan.
Another Facebook ambition that it spoke about with great bombast was the platform’s plans to transform journalism. Yes, Facebook (along with Google) was increasingly taking up the digital advertising revenue—which meant that publishers had to reallocate funds to cater to the growing duopoly. But Facebook also really wanted news organizations to think that it had their best interests in mind. One way it approached that was with Instant Articles, a fast-loading format for news articles that was native to Facebook. Publishers tried out Instant Articles because, well, their hands were tied. Facebook essentially told them that the best way to gain eyeballs was to make content using this new platform. Many publishers, however, were very unhappy with the results, and many have since abandoned it. Instant Articles is not dead, per se, but it’s clear that it hasn’t become the default distribution platform Facebook intended.
Here’s another journalism-adjacent feature, one that has a different death tale than the rest. Trending Topics didn’t get killed because no one took to it. Quite the opposite: Trending Topics was introduced as a way to add a social spin to news stories that people were talking about. If something was “trending,” that is, being highly shared on Facebook, it would gain a place at the top of users’ news feeds. Issues quickly arose over what was considered “trending,” and some right-wing critics claimed that the social network’s algorithm had a liberal bias. Ultimately, Facebook decided to kill Trending Topics. While it said it was because of waning interest, the feature was also an example of vague concept that saw negative results.
More to come?
There are many more Facebook products that launched with much fanfare and were ultimately killed. Off the top of my head, I can think of Paper, Gifts, and its attempt to kill email.
Of course, any successful company throws things against the wall to see what sticks, so it’s not surprising that Facebook has had many hits and misses. But when discussing Libra, an ambitious project that will require dozens of moving parts to facilitate success, it’s useful to keep in mind that many of Mark Zuckerberg’s best laid plans have gone awry.