The human solution to Facebook’s machine-produced problems also won’t work

Nobody can fix this.

In Facebook CEO Vows To Rid Social Network Of Bad Info, Actors, @mp_gavin says Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post promising “To cleanse his social network of trolls, purveyors of false and misleading information, and other bad actors” is “his most ambitious pledge yet.”

He’ll still fail.

As John Battelle explains in the subhead of Facebook Can’t Be Fixed, “Facebook’s fundamental problem is not foreign interference, spam bots, trolls, or fame mongers. It’s the company’s core business model, and abandoning it is not an option.” In Lost Context: How Did We End Up Here? John also visits how Facebook got into that business, and went to hell after that. The story is compressed in John’s subhead: “Facebook and Google’s advertising platforms are out of control. That used to be a good thing. Now…not so much.”

But that’s not quite right. Facebook form of advertising amounts to voyeurism for hire. That was never a good thing.

By now Facebook has become a gigantic closed habitat where two billion human beings share all kinds of revealing personal shit about themselves and each other, while providing countless ways for anybody on Earth, at any budget level, to micro-target ads at highly characterized human beings, using up to millions of different combinations of targeting characteristics (including ones provided by parties outside Facebook, such as Cambridge Analytica, which have deep psychological profiles of millions of Facebook members). Hey, what could go wrong?

In three words, the whole thing.

Now Zuck has handed fixing that thing over to human beings (not just fancy machine systems doing AI, ML and other cool hot tech stuff). Those humans now have what The Wall Street Journal calls “The Worst Job in Technology: Staring at Human Depravity to Keep It Off Facebook.”

This is not only ironic in the extreme, but also impossible to pull off. Like turning a cruise ship into an aircraft carrier, only harder.

You know Goethe’s (or hell, Disney’s) story of The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Look it up. It’ll help. Because Mark Zuckerberg is both the the sorcerer and the apprentice in the Facebook version of the story. Worse, Zuck doesn’t have the mastery required. Nobody, not even Zuck, has enough power to control the evil spirits released by machines designed to violate personal privacy, produce echo chambers, and to rationalize both by pointing at how popular it all is with the billions who serve as human targets for messages (while saying as little as possible about the $billions bad acting makes for the company).

Also consider this: Facebook is comprised of many data centers, each the size of a Walmart or few, scattered around the world and costing many $billions to build and maintain. Changing Facebook’s purpose and methods would be like turning a power plant into a pyramid.

Switching metaphors one more time, Facebook is Humpty-Dumpty, and Humpty is already on the ground. None of King Mark’s horses (e.g. better algorithms) or men (and women, doing icky jobs) can put Humpty together again.

So we might look at what’s happening for Zuck in terms of grief stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

At first he denied that the problem was there — even as fraudulent and misleading ads ran right next to the post where he did the denying. I suppose he went through the anger stage in private. Now he’s at the bargaining stage, betting that humans with awful jobs can halt the rising tide of outrage and embarrassment.

He’s not alone. In How to Fix Facebook — Before It Fixes Us, Roger McNamee, an investor and old friend of Zuck’s, deeply examines What Went Wrong, and teams up with ethicist Tristan Harris to produce an eight-point prescription for making Facebook stop doing all the awful shit that it does.

I hope Facebook does what they suggest, because all eight of those things are good to do. But man, are they hard. Take the first suggestion, for example:

First, we must address the resistance to facts created by filter bubbles. Polls suggest that about a third of Americans believe that Russian interference is fake news, despite unanimous agreement to the contrary by the country’s intelligence agencies. Helping those people accept the truth is a priority. I recommend that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others be required to contact each person touched by Russian content with a personal message that says, “You, and we, were manipulated by the Russians. This really happened, and here is the evidence.” The message would include every Russian message the user received.

Is Facebook even capable of saying which ad or fake news story was placed in front of any individual by any corporate advertising customer? Or knowing which ads or stories are fake or politically motivated? Or were placed directly or indirectly by Russian operatives?

And what about the 99.x% of fake shit placed by non-Russian bad actors? Take a look here:

That’s Mark Zuckerberg’s 23 November 2016 post saying (among other delusional things) “more than 99% of what people see is authentic,” as it appeared to me, in my browser. Ev Williams, in his browser, had his own pair of icky ads:

In After Peak Marketing, I looked at all four and wrote,

All four ads are flat-out frauds, in up to four ways apiece:
1. All are lies (Tiger isn’t gone from Golf, Trump isn’t disqualified, Kaepernick is still with the Niners, Tom Brady is still playing), violating Truth in Advertising law.
2. They were surely not placed by ESPN and CNN. This is fraud.
3. All four of them violate copyright or trademark laws by using another company’s name or logo. (One falsely uses another’s logo. Three falsely use another company’s Web address.)
4. All four stories are bait-and-switch scams, which are also illegal. (Both of mine were actually ads for diet supplements.)

Again, this is how Facebook was designed to work.

The best thing for Zuck to do is get the hell out, go through the depression stage while Facebook finishes failing, or skip that part (which will take years) and go straight to acceptance by starting over with something new and better, based on what he and others have learned from the experience. (Think Steve Jobs at NeXT… only without an Apple to go back and save.)

It should help Zuck to know that all companies fail—and that they just fail faster in Silicon Valley.

Google has the same problem, by the way, but is more aware of it, more diversified, founded on far better intentions (e.g. that nice stuff about gathering and sharing all the world’s knowledge) and therefore more likely to survive, at least for awhile.

It also helps to remember that all companies have souls born of founding purposes. And there’s a helluva big difference between a search engine meant to find “all the world’s knowledge” and one meant to find hot girls on a college campus.

Now let’s go deeper.

Because what matters far more than Facebook and Google is that we live digital lives now, on a network that puts us all a functional distance apart of zero. (When we’re connected, that is. The distance apart when we’re not is infinite).

This is new to human experience.

What we know about digital life so far is largely contained within what we’ve retrieved from the analog ones that preceded it. To wit,

  • Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon might all deal in digital goods, but their structures and operating methods mostly improve on the ones modeled by Carnegie, Ford and J.P. Morgan.
  • YouTube and Netflix are TV 3.x (where over-the-air is 1.x and Cable is 2.x).
  • BuzzFeed, Verge and Vox are all print magazines in digital drag.
  • Podcasts are shattered remnants of radio.
  • The Web is networked Gutenberg.
  • Search engines are library card catalogs.
  • AI systems just automate decisions based on how shit gets remembered. In fact, one could make the case that the whole freaking Internet is about helping humanity know and remember shit.

Marshall McLuhan says all technologies are extensions of ourselves. Hammers, pens, binoculars, cars and computers all give us ways to do what we can’t do with our brains and bodies alone. The list of bullets above are just rudiments of bigger, better and other things surely to come.

It helps to recognize that we are still going through early stages in our new Digital Age. Everything we know about digital life, so far, is contained within prototypes such as Facebook’s and Google’s. And all of those prototypes are just projects. If you don’t doubt ibult, look at your computer and your phone. Both are either new or to some degree already obsolete. Hell, even the new ones are old. Nothing will feel older a year from now than today’s latest Samsung and Apple mobile thingies.

It isn’t turtles all the way down, it’s scaffolding.

So let’s at least try to look below what big companies, Trump and other dancing figures in the digital world are doing. What is the floor they’re dancing on? And what is the ground under that floor?

At the very least, that ground is new and unlike anything that precedes it in human experience. Nothing matters more than at least trying to understand it. (And I’m not saying I do. Just want to be clear about that. Pointing at rocks doesn’t make one a geologist.)

Original version published at on January 5, 2018.

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