Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s Allegiances

Source: Annie Spratt

I signed up for Facebook sometime in 2006, whenever they allowed non .edu email addresses to register. I deleted my account late 2012 when I realized I was spending far too much time looking at old acquaintances and friends (“Facebook stalking”) rather than job-hunting after returning from Sierra Leone. The decision was personal. I didn’t have a political stance against Facebook all those years ago.

Things are markedly different in late 2019. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, numerous incidents around the world where Facebook has wrought havoc (elections, genocides, etc.) and pretty much every other seemingly “minor Facebook scandal”, it’s obvious that the company is not interested in empowering discourse. But Its massive user base, its monopoly on social media, its grip on political and civic institutions, and the media landscape means Facebook is everyone’s problem, including non-users.

Jacob Silverman in the Baffler writes that by now, we must treat Facebook as a “right-wing political force”, one resistant to any and all attempts at criticism, regulation, and reform:

That [Facebook] has come to so thoroughly dominate our public sphere is a tragic indictment of American civic life and American techno-capitalism, which has confused the pitiless surveillance of today’s internet with utopian empowerment.

Bearing the perverse logic known only to authoritarian state propaganda, Zuckerberg wishes us to believe that Facebook is a benevolent sovereign, a gateway to flourishing connectivity and public discourse, instead of an all-seeing surveillance apparatus that attempts to predict our needs, guide our behaviors, and monetize our dearest relationships and communications for obscene profits. It may not be the death knell to democracy that some claim, but it would be dubious to say that targeted advertising—and the coercion that attends it—has done anything to improve our lives. Nevertheless, Zuckerberg argues otherwise. Part and parcel of the new rhetoric is that Facebook’s technologically enabled users represent “a fifth estate,” a new member of the public sphere.

The Public Sphere Between Blogging and Social Media

John Naughton’s Guardian article about blogging’s 25th anniversary (which he counts from the appearance of Dave Winer’s Scripting News) makes some interesting points about the evolution of online civic discourse. When blogging became mainstream with services like Blogger, LiveJournal, WordPress, and Typepad, user-generated content was blog posts. People linked and responded, praised and critiqued. A public sphere was emerging, with (1) universal access, (2) rational debate, and (3) disregard for social rank. Then came social media companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter:

[…] two awkward realities intervened. The first was that “discussion” on these platforms was curated by algorithms that were geared more to increasing user “engagement” (and therefore profit) rather than rational deliberation. The second was that many users of social media seemed to have a limited appetite for rational discussion.

In hindsight, it seems obvious. When phones became pocket computers, it became a race to monetize our attention spans. I’m not very hopeful of the online landscape going forward, but there are certain online communities, bloggers included, who rebel against algorithmic online life in different ways.

Cal Newport’s New Yorker article about “Indie” Social Media ends with similar pessimism:

For the exhausted majority of social-media users, however, the appeal of the proverbial quiet bench might outweigh the lure of a better Facebook. In this vision of the future, there will be many more social-media platforms but far fewer people spending significant time on any of them. Social media has reshaped our culture, and this has convinced us that it is fundamentally appealing. Strip away its most manipulative elements, though, and we may find that it’s less rewarding than it seems.

I advocate blogging, on our own servers, our own words, our own thoughts, and our own communities, away from tech giants. It’s easier now than ever.