Facebook brings me a lot of joy. I love seeing the pictures and videos of friends and family, even the corny Ice Bucket and Mannequin challenges. I love the links, I love the memes, and I especially love the varied viewpoints from family and friends of friends; it’s a great way to see things from another viewpoint. And as you may know, I love a lively debate. We’re social creatures, and these micro-interactions make me feel connected to a much wider community.
However, by enabling these interactions, Facebook also inserts itself between you and others — and it is far from passive in this role. Your feed is edited and curated by incredibly advanced algorithms — private, opaque algorithms. They employ roughly 1000 of the world’s most talented engineers on the “product” alone (the part you interact with). But that word “product” is a little misleading. You are the product.
Facebook is a business, and an extremely successful one. They control about ~ 80% of the mobile advertising market, and they track and serve up immense amounts (~ 500 TB a day!) of data about their users — and even their non users who happen to click on a like button — to their customers. They also seem happy to give that data to government agencies. You can control your “privacy settings”, but they are so complicated and opaque, that viral hoaxes about their use continue to spread.
There’s been a lot in the news lately about how they enabled “fake news”, but all of the things I’ve cited so far are issues that have come up before that controversy. Zuckerberg said: “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — of which it’s a small amount of content — influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” he said last week.
Wow. If you spent any time on Facebook recently, and know any Trump supporters, you know that is total and complete horseshit. Even if he believes that (which I doubt), It’s a pretty glib response. Could they stop it? I’m convinced they can. But why would they?
Clicks make money. Engagement makes money. Tracking makes money. Likes make money. Knowing your browsing habits makes money. Correlating data makes money. Swinging elections makes money. I don’t believe it was the Russians or Bannon or the Illuminati who rigged the election — I think everyone was out for pure profit. They don’t care whether it’s true or not. The fake right-wing news spread more because that particular brand of manipulation spoke to them, that is far from the only example. King (the company behind Candy Crush) and Zynga (the company behind Farmville) are not trying to entertain you — they are trying to manipulate you so you will give them money. And they are exceptionally good at it, to the tune of $157/yr per paying customer.
The part of Facebook that brings us joy is not the complicated part. There have been hundreds of tutorials that teach you how to replicate the basic functionality for years. The complicated part is the part that makes money. The part that tracks all the data, correlates it, analyzes it, and tweaks the ad delivery to maximize engagement. The part that sells your time and tries as hard as it can to make you click things.
I think it’s fine to make money on ads — I work in TV. But I don’t really like the monopolisation of information in the hands of a manipulative source. About 60 percent of adults get their news through social media, 40 through Facebook. (If Twitter continues to implode, look for that last number to grow). Can you imagine if half of the stories in Time magazine were made up? Or if the NY Times would give you stickers if you got your friends to subscribe? People rail against Fox News and MSNBC, but their tactics seem tame by comparison.
I think that having an AI intermediary between you and your peers enables a larger number and wider variety of interactions that can broaden our minds, and enrich our lives. But do you want the hosts to be able to lie to you? Facebook’s management has been consistently misleading on their control of your information stream, and happy to support business models based on coercion and manipulation. Their closed architecture makes it extremely difficult for independent researchers to investigate, or for competitors to provide alternatives. It’s hard for me to be angry at our post-fact society and the continuing assault on reason, and allow a any closed company, much less one I know to be deceitful, between me and my peers.
Social media has quickly changed our lives, and Facebook’s rapid growth and constant innovation have made it a really great product for it’s users to connect. But it’s an even better product for its customers, and they will sell to anyone. Trump spent heavily on Facebook with anti-Hillary ads targeted at weak members of the democratic coalition in order to shrink the electorate and eek out a win.(No, really, go look at that Bloomberg article from October 27th. It lays out the entire strategy of “voter suppression” -their words, and it worked like a charm, whether or not it was ethical.)
The stakes are high, and Facebook (among many others) doing what corporations are supposed to to: increase their own power and influence to make more money. If we’re privatizing our personal interactions, I feel like we did a shitty job negotiating the terms.
Program or be Programmed: If you don’t take control of your digital life, someone else will. And if someone is writing a program to control what I see and don’t see, I want to see and be able to change the code. Right, Maeve?