How Facebook’s past acquisitions could haunt its purchase of Giphy

On Friday, Facebook made its fifth-largest known acquisition ever. The company bought Giphy, a database and search engine for the short looping videos known as GIFs, for $400 million. Today let’s talk about some of the reasons, stated and unstated, that Facebook bought Giphy, and then consider what might come next.

The stated reason for acquiring Giphy, as expressed in this blog post from Instagram’s head of product announcing the deal, is twofold. One, Facebook can now build tighter integrations between the products to enhance stickers, stories, and other products. And two, it can make further investments in Giphy’s technology and content library to benefit all the companies that rely on Giphy for GIF supply. Here’s Vishal Shah:

People will still be able to upload GIFs; developers and API partners will continue to have the same access to GIPHY’s APIs; and GIPHY’s creative community will still be able to create great content.

The two companies began talking before the pandemic, I’m told, to explore some sort of expanded partnership. More than half of the GIFs sent through Giphy land on Facebook-owned apps, and half of those land on Instagram specifically. So it’s natural that the two companies would be in regular conversation.

The problem for Giphy is that its business wasn’t working. The 7-year-old company, which had raised $150.9 million, had developed a convoluted advertising model in which it would host GIFs for brands and let them pay to promote them in conversation. That generated some level of experimental revenue from advertisers, but the product failed to take off. Giphy claimed 700 million daily users. Two people close to the deal told me it likely would have gone out of business had it not been acquired, and Instagram chief Adam Mosseri tweeted that Giphy “needed a home.” (He said a bit more to Sara Fischer.)

At the same time, GIFs are a core part of any social app, and Giphy had already built the largest independent GIF library. (Google acquired the other big player, Tenor, in 2018.) There’s obvious strategic value to Facebook in acquiring a tool that is fundamental to the way that people express themselves online. A Giphy ad deck from last spring that someone sent me reported that the company served 7 billion GIFs per day, and so without Giphy in the world Facebook would have to find another way to source 3.5 billion daily GIFs.

Better yet, from Facebook’s perspective, Giphy was available at a discount. The app had last raised funding in 2016 at a valuation of $600 million, and the combination of a failing ad business and pandemic-related uncertainty had given the company a 33 percent haircut. The deal is still large by Facebook standards, though, suggesting that other players may have been competing for it. Giphy integrates with Apple’s iMessage, ByteDance’s TikTok, Slack, Snapchat, and Twitter, among many others, and it’s not hard to imagine any of them putting in an offer. (That said, I imagine $400 million was too steep a price tag for most of them.)

For all these reasons, few scoffed when Facebook announced its purchase. But given the company’s history of brilliant, pricey strategic purchases, there was a sense over the weekend that some greater game must be unfolding. To me it seemed like shrewd dealmaking during troubled times — buy a useful thing for cheap — but I also suspected that there might have been a more anticompetitive motive in play. Sarah Frier explored this question in Bloomberg:

Giphy provides the same search service to many of Facebook’s competitors, Apple Inc.’s iMessage, Twitter, Signal, TikTok and others. The company has a view of the health of those platforms and how often people use them, which is exactly the kind of insight Facebook values most, and has sought in the past. After Giphy joins Facebook, the company will maintain those integrations, and will keep getting data from GIF searches and posts around the internet. […]

Since Facebook doesn’t own a mobile phone operating system like iOS or Android, it has relied on other means to understand competitors’ strengths — sometimes getting in trouble in the process. In 2013, for instance, Facebook acquired Onavo, an Israeli company that made a VPN, a tool to keep online activity private. Just not from Facebook, which analyzed the data to see which apps were getting popular, and then came up with ways to compete with or purchase them. Apple in 2018 banned the Onavo app, declaring that the data collection violated its app store rules.

Mosseri denied this, as did other Facebook executives I spoke with over the weekend. While it’s tempting to imagine Facebook building a sequel to Onavo as an early-warning system for potential threats, at most Giphy would be redundant in this regard. When TikTok arose as a threat in 2018, Facebook could tell because the company was spending $1 billion on ads — many of them Facebook ads. And when smaller threats emerge, Facebook can tell because people post about them … on Facebook.

If a new social app arose that used a Giphy integration, and Facebook could see that it was serving them exponentially more GIFs month after month, that could potentially be useful to the company. But it seems unlikely, given all the other data at Facebook’s fingertips, that it would be all that surprising.

There’s a secondary data question, though, and it’s how all of Giphy’s partners feel about suddenly becoming Facebook customers. An important question is whether Facebook will receive data about individual consumer behavior through Giphy; the answer seems to be no. Ben Thompson, who beat me to many of these points in his newsletter today, explains how (and has a fascinating aside at the end):

The GIPHY API, on the other hand, which allows for a custom-built integration, has no such requirement, and Signal explained in 2017 how GIPHY’s service can be proxied to hide all user data. Slack has already said that they proxy GIPHY in the same way, and I strongly suspect that Twitter and Apple do the same. That means that Facebook can get total usage data from these apps, but not individual user data (and as further evidence that this sort of proxying is effective, Facebook-owned WhatsApp actually uses Google’s Tenor service; I highly doubt Facebook would have tolerated that to-date if Google were getting per-user data).

Meanwhile at The Verge, Jay Peters asks Giphy’s most high-profile partners what they make of the deal, and they responded in two ways: either saying that they had been hiding user data from Giphy, or declining to comment at all. Ultimately, these partners are going to vote with their products. If they come to view Giphy as a data giveaway to Facebook, they’re likely to find alternatives. But if Apple and Snap remain Giphy customers, perhaps skepticism of the deal will subside. (I wouldn’t count on it.)

Among the current skeptics are some members of Congress. Here’s Makena Kelly in The Verge:

In statements Friday, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Democrats Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were skeptical of the deal.

“Facebook keeps looking for even more ways to take our data,” Hawley said in a statement to The Verge. “Just like Google purchased DoubleClick because of its widespread presence on the internet and ability to collect data, Facebook wants Giphy so it can collect even more data on us. Facebook shouldn’t be acquiring any companies while it is under antitrust investigation for its past purchases.”

There’s something darkly funny, to me anyway, about Giphy being the Facebook acquisition that rouses Congressional antitrust hawks from their multi-decade slumber party. Is Congress going to assert that Facebook now has a GIF monopoly? What are the barriers to entry to creating GIFs, exactly? We desperately need Congress to enforce antitrust when it comes to social networks acquiring other social networks, but social networks acquiring floundering content libraries seems like it ought to remain permissible.

But you know what they say about generals fighting the last war. Knowing what they know now, it seems likely that Congress would not today approve Facebook buying Instagram or WhatsApp. It would be incredible if, so many years after those purchases, it wound up being Giphy that paid the price for those failures.

Pushback

On Thursday I wrote about the idea that COVID-19 is making Silicon Valley a less attractive place to live, noting that there are already stories about some tech workers heading for cheaper pastures. I got great responses from folks working at Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among other places, reflecting a wide range of views. Two, I think, are especially worth calling out. One is that employees’ arbitrage scheme might be less effective than they hope, because companies already know that other places are cheaper to live and will lower their pay accordingly once they move. (I’m told that Google and Facebook already do this.)

The other is that fleeing to the wilderness is really only a good option for people who are partnered up and well established in their careers. Younger and more junior employees benefit immensely from city life and office life. As one younger tech worker told me:

Young people need to learn social working skills in their first job (and it won’t happen over Zoom). Young people need to gossip about coworkers. Young people need to date. Young people need to be around other people. My colleagues who are making decisions based on these policies are — by and large — married with kids. I think that’s expected! and I think it’s really good for them. But the specific effects of that — employers’ most senior employees moving offsite — could have a drastic impact on the future of how these companies operate, and I don’t think I’ve seen that well represented.

It’s a great point. In any case, I do think Silicon Valley will survive. As another tech worker put it to me in response to the newsletter: “The Bay Area (and all of California) has been desirable and expensive for over 100 years. It’s so self-centered for the tech community to think they are the reason why SF is desirable and that if they leave, the city will collapse.”

In any case, I’m not going anywhere.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Instagram launched a series of wellness Guides to help people during the pandemic. Creators will now have the ability to connect with credible organizations to share resources on managing grief and anxiety, among other things. (Instagram)

Virus tracker

Total cases in the US: More than 1,503,600

Total deaths in the US: At least 89,800

Reported cases in California: 80,803

Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 1,292,672

Reported cases in New York: 355,037

Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 1,439,557

Reported cases in New Jersey: 148,039

Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 505,569

Reported cases in Illinois: 94,362

Total test results (positive and negative) in Illinois: 603,241

Data from The New York Times. Test data from The COVID Tracking Project.

Governing

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted Mark Zuckerberg to take a more hands-on approach to running Facebook, a shift that started in 2016. In the process, COO Sheryl Sandberg has seen her role diminish, report Mike Isaac, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang of The New York Times:

Now, the coronavirus has presented Mr. Zuckerberg with the opportunity to demonstrate that he has grown into his responsibilities as a leader — a 180-degree turn from the aloof days of 2016. It’s given him the chance to lead 50,000 employees through a crisis that, for once, is not of their own making. And seizing the moment might allow Mr. Zuckerberg to prove a thesis that he truly believes: That if one sees past its capacity for destruction, Facebook can be a force for good.

Facebook hired a former deputy prime minister of the UK to fix its reputation and governance. “Since arriving, Clegg has ushered into existence the company’s external oversight board, helped shepherd Zuckerberg’s most significant policy speech to date and defended the company’s controversial policies on political speech. And this year, Clegg has been intimately involved in shaping the company’s coronavirus response, in particular working with dozens of governments around the world to figure out what role the social network can and should play in the pandemic—not retreating, but leaning into its role in society and even politics.” (Nancy Scola / Politico)

The Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit against Facebook for allegedly provided “material support” to terrorists by hosting their content. The case, Force v. Facebook, was brought by the families of five Americans who were hurt or killed by Palestinian attacks in Israel. An important Section 230 case. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)

Facebook’s hesitancy to wade deep into the waters of fact checking is based on the fear that debunking a bogus claim could make the lie grow stronger. But whatever the company thinks about the backfire effect, this phenomenon has not been demonstrated in any convincing way. (Ethan Porter / Wired)

Anti-vaxxers on Instagram are fueling coronavirus conspiracy theories. The company’s efforts to curb health misinformation have done little to stem the flow of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. (Karissa Bell / Engadget)

India’s antitrust watchdog is looking into allegations that WhatsApp engaged in anticompetitive behavior. The complaint says the company bundled its digital payment feature within its messaging app, allowing it to abuse its market position and penetrate India’s booming digital payments market. (Aditi Shah and Aditya Kalra / Reuters)

Attorney General William Barr voiced his frustration with Apple for failing to help the US government unlock the Pensacola shooter’s iPhone. He said voters and Congress should make encryption decisions — not tech companies. (Chris Welch / The Verge)

The pandemic has intensified the fight between Amazon and labor. But despite several clashes in Europe, labor activism hasn’t stopped the company from dominating online retail. (Liz Alderman and Adam Satariano / The New York Times)

Also: Amazon is planning to gradually reopen its French warehouses starting on May 19th. The company is finalizing an agreement with unions to end a dispute over coronavirus protection steps that closed the sites for more than a month. (Reuters)

A seventh Amazon employee has died of COVID-19. The company still refuses to say how many workers are sick. (Josh Dzieza / The Verge)

A court in Texas is holding the first known jury trial by Zoom. The news comes as court systems across the country face a choice between postponing trials until the pandemic ends or holding remote proceedings. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

Doctors are tweeting about coronavirus to make facts go viral and combat misinformation on the platform. Bob Wachter, the chairman of the department of medicine at UCSF, sets aside two hours a day to tweet updates about the virus. (Georgia Wells / The Wall Street Journal)

The United States is amassing an army of contact tracers to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. But high caseloads, low testing, and American attitudes toward authority are likely to pose serious challenges. (James Temple / MIT Technology Review)

Germany and Australia have opted for two very different approaches to contact tracing. Australia will store user data on a central server, while Germany is going with a decentralized approach. (Amrita Khalid / Quartz)

A major question about Europe’s coronavirus contact-tracing apps is whether they will work when citizens of one country travel to another. As borders begin to reopen, the question will get even more pressing. (Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch)

Industry

Disney’s top streaming executive, Kevin Mayer, resigned on Monday to become CEO of TikTok. Mayer, who was once seen as Disney’s CEO in waiting, will now serve as COO of ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company. It’s a huge get for TikTok. Here’s Brooks Barnes from The New York Times:

Mr. Mayer’s departure from Disney is not entirely a surprise. Disney’s board of directors passed over him earlier this year when it was looking for a successor for Robert A. Iger, who abruptly stepped down in February. (Mr. Iger remains executive chairman, with a focus on the creative process.) Many people in Hollywood and on Wall Street had viewed Mr. Mayer, 58, as the logical internal candidate because the future of Disney rests on its ability to transform itself into a streaming titan. The top job, however, went to Bob Chapek, the lower-profile chairman of Disney’s theme parks and consumer products businesses.

Square told employees they can work from home forever, following a similar announcement from Twitter last week. While many tech companies have extended remote work timelines due to COVID-19, only Jack Dorsey’s organizations have made the switch permanent. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

People have now spent $100 million on Oculus Quest virtual reality content. And Portal sales are up 10 times year over year, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth says in this interview. (Janko Roettgers / Protocol)

Oculus says Quest is starting a VR revolution. But plenty of unanswered questions remain about the technology’s prospects for making the leap from nerd caves to living rooms. (Seth Schiesel / Protocol)

TikTok houses all kind of look the same. That’s likely not an accident — moderators were told to hide videos with environments that were “shabby and dilapidated,” with “crack[s] in the wall” or “old and disreputable decorations.” (Emma Alpern / Curbed)

Clubhouse raised Series A funding from Andreessen Horowitz, bringing the company’s valuation to just above $100 million. Clubhouse, a voice-based social media app with fewer than 5,000 beta users, is now one of the most richly valued pieces of beta software ever. (Alex Konrad / Forbes)

Discord is also in talks to raise funding from investors. Business is booming because of stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Gillian Tan and Katie Roof / Bloomberg)

Singapore state investor Temasek joined the Libra Association. (Saheli Roy Choudhury / CNBC)

Google Meet has been downloaded 50 million times, up from five million at the beginning of March. The app has received a significant boost as people continue to shelter in place. (Hagop Kavafian / Android Police)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Watch the BBC together with your friends. BBC Together is like Netflix’s similar Watch Party, but for British TV.

Read 14 ways that people are finding joy during the pandemic, including taking butt selfies.

Listen to me talk about various aspects of tech and the pandemic with iHeartRadio’s Daily Dive, Kara Swisher and her son Louie, and my friends on The Vergecast. I also spoke with Australia’s Late Night Live show about Facebook’s preliminary settlement with content moderators.

Those good tweets

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and GIFs: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.