Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist.
This year, if you logged onto Facebook, there’s a strong chance you were presented with a survey from the company asking if you thought the social network was good for the world. Given the 2018 they’ve had, would it really be surprising if millions clicked “Strongly Disagree"?
In March, the Cambridge Analytica scandal suggested Facebook plays fast and loose with users’ data and may have affected the U.S. presidential election. A data breach in September saw the personal information of as many as 50 million users leaked. In December, The New York Times reported that Facebook had secretly allowed companies such as Netflix and Spotify to bypass its privacy rules and pay for special access to its data cache. A Facebook executive mused, in a leaked internal memo, that perhaps people enduring hate speech or deadly terrorist attacks co-ordinated on the platform was an acceptable cost for connecting people (Facebook has still done little to address its part in fomenting anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar or anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka). That’s just a small sample from Facebook’s annus horribilis, which has prompted many users to call for government regulations and for the more outraged to delete their accounts and urge others to join them in their boycott.
Couple all that with the growing evidence that suggests the platform actually increases mental-health problems – co-founder Sean Parker said it exploits “a vulnerability in human psychology" – and any detached observer would be justified in thinking Facebook has become the Big Tobacco or Big Pharma of the digital age. And through all that, an astounding 2.2 billion people – almost a third of the world – still actively use Facebook, comfortable with the dissonance that one of their most fundamental rights is being undermined in exchange for dopamine hits of like-based approval and technological convenience.
There is, however, a tiny wrench in the machinery of my stark moralizing: Lately, I’ve been finding Facebook so damn useful, I can barely get off it.
This September, I moved into an apartment in an area of Toronto that was new to me. The Facebook group for my neighbourhood has become a treasure trove of recommendations and tips, not to mention community. I’ve even started contributing, telling my new neighbours about things I’ve discovered or passing along tips I’ve picked up from reading city news and food blogs. As Facebook the social phenomenon starts to feel more and more dystopian, my personal experience of Facebook the platform makes me feel like an actor in its propaganda: Here I am, connecting with people in ways I could never have done without it.
So I find myself at an impasse: As a technology critic, I find myself deeply wary about, if not disgusted by, the company; as a user, I find the service vital in both senses of the word.
Indeed, even as it turns into a caricature of an evil corporation, Facebook has enjoyed unprecedented expansion and user growth, working itself into the very fabric of our lives. For many people, it is now the default mode for interacting with others online. As a result, it owns what is called the social graph: the collection of your contacts and their related data. The company has become the standard, one-stop mediator for online social activities, including knock-on functions such as one’s calendar. You know that one friend you always have to send a separate e-mail to about your birthday party because they refuse to be on Facebook? It’s an admirable stand, but Facebook users can’t help but find it weirdly annoying, too – such is the pressure of network effects. Other social functions just keep piling on to the platform, too – news, dating, community groups, TV shows – and the more people use a service and its growing number of functions, the more difficult it is to escape it.
In one sense, this is nothing new. The difficult moral balance between the benefits of the market’s newest trinket and an individual’s ethical concerns is both a condition and limitation of so-called “conscious capitalism”: One’s choices are only to consume or not consume, and even the choice to abstain from one company or take one’s business elsewhere still reasserts the broader system that underpins it. But the outrage over Facebook serves as an unhappy trap: It’s a problem we wish we could ignore because it conflicts with the human desire for convenience and comfort, but we are forced to confront it nonetheless.
So I am less persuaded by atavistic calls to simply withdraw from social media and return to some prelapsarian state before the internet. That’s because of the dream that really underpins such reckonings over Facebook’s worst realities, a goal that feels fundamental, necessary and hugely ambitious, if not impossible: to save social media from Facebook. And that might require us to reconceptualize social media itself.
After all, what Facebook has done is privatize and monetize what is simply the new cultural form of media. Facebook’s business model began as a kind of social analogue to PayPal: As the latter monetized the movement of money between people, the former predicates its business model on the transmission of the data made between people, using that fine-grain data to sell advertisers an opportunity to better market their products. In doing so, it formalized and then collected what sociologists call “weak ties” with acquaintances who become your audience, and that new feeling of “speaking to the world” – of having an access point to connect with others that emerged with forums and blogs in the late nineties – is now overwhelmingly owned by Facebook.
But that connection is not “unnatural” or merely an effect of the latest, digital form of capitalism; it’s another way in which culture has been shaped by technology. Just as paper and ink gave rise to the letter, and cameras that could capture moving images created a new kind of art, digital networks have their own ideas and forms that are leveraging technologies to better mediate what society fundamentally wants.
As technology journalist Ramona Pringle put it, we are not addicted to technology – we are addicted to each other. The ability to have conversations with family members scattered around the globe, to connect to a local community, to talk with friends – these are all vital, human things that are written in our bones. And social media has also given shape to another dimension of human experience that has arguably always existed: having a public-facing persona, a kind of non-body part of our identity through which we explore ideas, connect with others and project our vision of ourselves to the world. In the midst of our current backlash against tech, it can be easy to forget that there may still be good in digital technology. It’s just that Facebook, Instagram and others have taken what is a net benefit for people – and what was a well-intentioned medium – and corrupted it with economic imperatives.
The initial promise of the internet, after all, was most decidedly not enormous, multibillion-dollar global platforms owning user data and the means of communication. Rather, it was about "disaggregation”: breaking up parts of established industries or practices and rethinking distribution, media and culture at large. And while those more friendly to market-based approaches might argue that Facebook and other social-media behemoths are just giving people what they want, the premise relies on accepting that these networks have become the establishment now, a bastardization of the internet’s initial spirit of disruption. Saving social media might mean recapturing that ethos – unbundling the constituent parts of online life so they aren’t locked up in specific platforms and making those parts of culture individually or collectively owned.
We might rethink things such as an online identity, a calendar or a place to post updates as things people own and control. It may be a sort of hybrid of the early days of the web, where blog services such as Blogger and Wordpress provided the backbone for personally owned and hosted websites.
The trouble, as ever, is economics. The model in which services are given away for free in order to collect valuable data for advertisers is, at least for Facebook and Google, extremely lucrative; those companies will be unwilling to give up their oligopoly on online life. Meanwhile, finding ways to actually fund a new model of user-controlled social media will require some heretofore unknown approach.
The bigger issue is our culture – and its inherent inertia. The dominance of the internet by Silicon Valley’s tech giants – platform capitalism, as it’s been termed by various scholars – is a business model predicated on monopolizing how information and social connections are distributed; early attempts at openness, such as a mid-2000s technology called RSS, which allows content from websites to be syndicated everywhere, have been completely overshadowed by these efforts. But this makes social media a digital analogue for climate change: The mere fact that we have done it one way in the past is not enough to continue doing it that way forever, and that makes the problem feel all the more intractable. Just as facing climate change may in fact require reshaping the entire economy, so too may dealing with Facebook require a fundamentally rethinking of how it is regulated and how it works.
We have to face this challenge, however. The stakes go beyond how we talk to friends, or the future of 21st-century business models. This is about how we, as a culture, conceive of some of most significant techno-cultural changes since the advent of the printing press and whether, in response, we can produce both cultural and economic models that aren’t just intensified versions of what came before. By thinking about how we wish to react to the news about Facebook – and by association, the sudden monopolization of online life by U.S. companies – we are thinking about the cultural ground upon which we stand, to whom it belongs and what kind of future we want to be hurtling into. A boycott won’t do that.
There are social-media platforms aimed at providing users more control – Ello, Vero, and Mastodon, for instance – but because our networks aren’t all there, they hardly feel like an option at all. And so boycotts are effectively asking people to quit Facebook with no other real alternative, which is akin to asking people to stop using electricity to combat climate change: It substitutes regression for a solution.
So, for the time being at least, I will continue to frequent Facebook – to find out about the new noodle joint in my neighbourhood or hear new warnings about thieves snatching parcels from our porches. My people are there, after all – family in India or Australia, childhood acquaintances in England, friends all across North America. But then, this is what Facebook does. It gathers all your contacts and a host of social functions in one place and makes it impossible to leave. It’s a flood of utility, just as Facebook itself can often turn into a deluge of information. But perhaps saving ourselves and the nascent form of social media may require dragging ourselves out of that rushing stream, drying ourselves off and looking at this new age in a whole new light.