The Rise of a Giant and the Libra Cryptocurrency
Facebook has wrapped up almost 16 years of history. Founded in 2004 chiefly as a social network company, Facebook initially launched to connect Harvard University students together. The company’s first steps happened at a notorious historical moment, with the first iteration starting off in a Harvard dorm room.
Mission: Connecting the World
The company’s initial mission sounded innocent enough, based on the idea of connecting people through a single platform. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder, has mentioned in multiple variances.
Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected
In late 2019, Facebook counted almost 2.5 billion users worldwide, once again making it the largest social network. The connectivity and invitation algorithms expanded the number of users, leading to global network of people.
In the early 2000s, Facebook arrived just as MySpace and other ways to connect online were unraveling. With the possibility of sharing multiple media, building a Facebook profile was immediately appealing.
The chief promise of Facebook is that its service is free, and always will be. Over the years, the company boosted its advertising revenues, while constant growth reflected on the market capitalization. Of course, the service did not go without revenues, as Facebook grew its ad outreach, harnessing algorithms to tailor content.
And it was precisely that tailored content, personalized tools and timelines which increased engagement. Facebook allowed each user to tweak the relevance of their information, honing in on the most important news from their own perspective. Zuckerberg has remarked on this phenomenon with a direct explanation on how he sees news relevance.
“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” Zuckerberg has mentioned.
Facebook’s model is to apply this thinking to almost all news, in the end leading to constant engagement and user interest.
Facebook Stock Success
Facebook went public in 2012, when it had accrued over one billion users, a milestone for any company. The company debuted with 421 million shares, and was considered one of the biggest tech IPOs in history. After negotiating on a per-share range of between $28 and $38, Faccebook went public with a price of $26.81, sparking hopes for an ultra-growth valuation.
But the months after the IPO were underwhelming, as prices on the open market slid to around $19. But in the years after that, FB stock became one of the stars in the new tech boom. Part of the FAANG group of companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google), the shares were at the forefront of a new stock boom.
Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) now trades at $221.32, reaching new price records after a successful 2019. After the slump in the fall of 2018, which created fears the US bull market could break, the stock went on to have another successful year, climbing out of the lows near $124. Combined with user growth, and an expansion of 20% on earnings per share year-on-year, Facebook keeps itself in the spotlight.
Cambridge Analytica Scandal
The Facebook stock price took off in earnest after 2016. But that was also the time when the influence of Facebook was being questioned. It was precisely the news-tailoring algorithms which were taken to talks.
It turned out the business model of Facebook was not just centered around tailored advertising. It was also a monster data collector.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal pointed out that pattern. Facebook had accrued massive amounts of data, as well as experience in sifting through it. Users, at that point, were also comfortable with the platform and would provide a constant flow of all manners of data – including geolocation, news preference, and other types of information.
At that point, Facebook contained multiple tools to tailor one’s account, and this also produced more data.
In the end, it turned out Cambridge Analytica used the data to tweak news and stories, with accusations arising that this tailored campaign ended up swaying the US election results in 2016, which allowed Donald Trump to become President.
The data collection happened at a time when regulations were lax on what could be done with user data. There was no explicit consent, and no regulation in place to make users realize that each one of their actions on Facebook generated data.
The harvesting also happened based on a private effort, as Cambridge Analytica was hired to gather data for US Senator Ted Cruz. But the effect of data collection and tailored content spread much further, possibly contributing to a narrative that led to voting in favor of Brexit.
The entire scope of the scandal was exposed in the spring of 2018, just in time to temporarily tank the FB stock price.
The data collection was done through an innocent-looking app, which curated users’ digital footprint. But the app also collected and stored data, which were later used within the scope of political campaigns.
The final count held that more than 78 million user profiles were affected, with the majority belonging to US-based accounts. Seemingly innocent data like birthdays, locations and a few other data points were used to create profiles, and tailor advertising and stories to those users. Those stories matched and, according to accusers, amplified certain political moods, which had nothing to do with news about squirrels or cute cat pictures.
Zuckerberg’s public involvement increased in the spring of 2018. The company’s founder had to explain to a worldwide audience, and even apologize about its data handling practices. The company ended up paying a small fine of $653,000 for the trespass, which was specifically about not safeguarding user data.
But the real scandal that affected Facebook was that the social network had the potential to boost certain phenomena. Fake news, believably-built stories produced in content farms in third-world countries, spread throughout the social network, leading countries like Germany to openly attack the platform’s potential for disseminating harmful content.
The social media giant was also accused of enabling foreign meddling in election results, and having a general potential in its very mechanisms to sway public opinion.
And that potential has been realized with only a handful of the users. Despite calls to boycott Facebook, the social network still hosts billions of new accounts, from vastly different cultures, making it a global force.
Based on the most recent news, the data harvesting has not stopped. Data Propria, a company founded in 2018, has reportedly been tasked with working on the US election cycle in 2020, with the aim to boost the chances of President Trump’s re-election.
Facebook and Cryptocurrency
It was during the biggest crypto boom that Facebook set entirely different priorities. Initially, Facebook had little to do with Bitcoin or crypto assets, only exercising caution and banning crypto-related ads in early 2018.
At that point, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies were going through their frenzy phase, and ads helped thinly concealed scams gather more users. Facebook moved in with an outright ban, which lasted for about a year.
For a while, the blowout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal took the forefront for all Facebook efforts. Cryptocurrencies were, at that point, a relatively minor issue.
The world of crypto was also going through a crunch, entering a two-year bear market that affected most assets. The entire 2018 was counted as a bad year in crypto, when the initial hype unraveled, and the promises of digital projects failed to materialize.
Overall interest in crypto assets diminished, including a dissipation of social media groups and overall searches. Hence 2018 was not the ideal year for crypto interest, and Facebook stood on the sidelines. In the meantime, multiple crypto startups came up with the idea of combining a social media platform with a crypto-based coin or token.
However, none of those projects had the resources to build a highly usable, popular platform. The biggest platform, Steemit, ended up firing most of its staff. The Steemit ecosystem also held an unfair advantage for early adopters, essentially becoming a pyramid scheme.
Other similar projects failed to take off, lacking the resources and runaway funding, as the bear market diminished the potential of startups.
Additionally, token-based projects lost their credibility, and Bitcoin became the leading field of speculation. All of those factors meant no big company wanted to touch crypto assets with any seriousness.
The biggest defect of crypto assets was their volatile price. Merchants soon found out Bitcoin was not the ideal tool for payments, as its price could be extremely volatile.
Soon, the idea of stablecoins appeared – an asset that kept its valuation intuitive at $1. At the same time, those assets allowed for fast, borderless transfers of value. Reportedly, their chief idea was to collect actual funds in dollars, store them in bank accounts, then issue the respective token that matches the value.
This initial idea was realized by Tether, Inc., one of the most notorious companies in the crypto space. Over the course of two years, Tether issued USDT tokens, claiming to reflect real interest in crypto investment. The growth of USDT supply also coincided with price booms for Bitcoin, leading skeptics to believe it was a direct effort to manipulate prices.
But the idea of stablecoins picked up, and was expanded upon by new startups. It was precisely the flaws of Tether which built the new generation of stablecoins. Those projects required customer screening and de-anonymization before taking in dollars and issuing new tokens. Projects like TrueUSD, Paxos, and USDC by Circle also tried to be compliant with the latest regulations.
Even the Winklevoss twins joined the stablecoin bandwagon. They are still supporting a relatively small stablecoin, Gemini USD (GUSD), mostly active on the Gemini exchange. The asset has shown that stablecoins can work even under the strict regulations of New York.
This model turned rather successful for the crypto space, ushering in new forms of trading and access for both retail investors and large-scale buyers. Stablecoins had an international outreach, and relied on public blockchains to deliver the tokens anywhere around the globe.
In a world even more used to connectivity, stablecoins, especially USDT, were a lifeline. Those assets made it possible to acquire crypto coins and hold onto them without the price risk. Additionally, stablecoins offered a cheaper way to transfer funds worldwide, while avoiding some of the capital controls.
A stablecoin can be sent in minutes, also serving as a form of fintech solution, while avoiding the waiting time for bank transfers.
The utility of stablecoins was established at the time of relatively stagnant trading. Nevertheless, stablecoin projects appeared and started to spread through exchanges. When the bullish attitudes returned in 2019, the usability of stablecoins was even bigger, as they had already spread through exchanges.
Enter Facebook’s Libra
Facebook’s Libra project was announced in June 2019, just after a few months of significantly improving performance on the cryptocurrency markets. Around that time, the Cambridge Analytica scandal had blown over in its worst.
So Facebook suddenly announced it would copy the stablecoin model, and introduce Libra, a digital coin complete with an ecosystem and a wallet. David Marcus was put at the helm of the project.
Facebook, it turns out, had copied multiple ideas from the crypto space. Beyond the idea of an asset-backed stablecoin, Facebook also waited for more innovation in building networks.
Facebook’s Libra, it became known, would not copy Bitcoin. Instead, it would resemble coins like TRON and EOS, which used a series of delegates to produce blocks. This approach is known as delegated proof-of-stake, and goes beyond mining and democratic staking. Instead, it allows big players to support a network and allocate resources.
Facebook, with its big influence, went further. It enlisted 27 big companies to participate in the Libra Association. Among the listed were large telecoms, as well as VISA, MasterCard, and a handful of other payment processing companies.
The announcement of Libra was initially greeted by the crypto market, unleashing a rally in most assets which lasted for a few months. It seemed Facebook, of all companies, would be the entity to spread the usage of digital assets into the mainstream.
But instead, Facebook’s Libra opened a can of worms. Worldwide, regulators quickly recalled the big influence of Facebook, and its effect during the years of data gathering and targeted content. Almost immediately, Mark Zuckerberg had to visit Congress once again, and explain the case for Libra.
Zuckerberg conceded that Libra would not launch without regulatory green light.
…Some have suggested that we intend to circumvent regulators and regulations. We want to be clear: Facebook will not be launching the Libra payments system in any part of the world unless all U.S. regulators approve it. And we support Libra delaying its launch until it has fully addressed all U.S. regulatory concerns
The initial plan was for Libra to launch in early 2020. But so far, there is little clarity on what regulators intend to do. Libra has been ready with a plan to base its value on a basket of global currencies, with a prevalence of the US dollar (50%), but also including the euro (18%), yen (14%), British pound (11%), and Singapore dollar (7%).
Where is Libra Now?
Libra has been running as a testnet token, inviting developers to add use cases. The Calibra wallet has been created, though it is useless without the mainnet token launch.
According to David Marcus, the Libra project will aim to build a new protocol for money, and still sticks to its original purpose to give access to the unbanked.
The Libra Association is still gathering new members, with no strict timeline on when they would become block producers. The entity has gained regulatory approval in the canton of Zug, Switzerland, thus making use of the regulatory climate in what has become known as “Crypto Valley.”
When it comes to adoption, skepticism about Facebook’s data gathering has created a backlash. Facebook has spoken multiple times about the company having no direct guidance on the usage of Libra, and has promised it would not gather transaction data.
Central banks in Europe and Asia have also spoken against Libra, suggesting it may lead to the formation of a grey economy and reduce financial transparency. So far, there has been no clarity on how funds would be transferred or exchanged for Libra tokens.
It is possible Libra may be used within the Facebook ecosystem, including within the WhatsApp chat. Libra has the potential to reach millions of unbanked in almost all world regions, but the acceptance may be a lengthy process with many more regulatory hurdles.
Technically, the Libra network will use gas to pay for transactions, building on the idea of the Ethereum network and even using the very name for the resource. Unlike TRON and EOS, the network will not be free.
Additionally, the newly appointed Technical Steering Committee will oversee how Libra develops in the future.
The council of the Libra Association appoints an independent Technical Steering Committee to govern technical development for the Libra project. Meet the members: @diogomonica @JoeLallouz @ricoflan @nickgrossman @gc3tweets
— Libra Dev (@LibraDev) January 17, 2020
The most optimistic news about Libra is that its development continues. And with crypto markets starting the year on a high note, there may be more demand for this digital asset. However, there is still no strict deadline for the launch.
Do you think Facebook will have success with its Libra cryptocurrency? Add your thoughts below!
Images via Shutterstock, Twitter @LibraDev