A bad week for Tech's most punchable nerd.
Last week was a bad one for the Republic’s most punchable nerd. A single configuration error in a routine upgrade designed to improve upload times knocked Facebook offline for about six hours. That’s irony. Then after a day that reminded many of us how pleasant a world without social media can be, former employee Frances Haugen testified before congress that the company was at least as awful as its users suspected it was. That’s schadenfreude.
It’s also a little unfair. Some of the fury at Mark Zuckerburg is logically incoherent. As grating as a business model that sells our personal id to advertisers to exploit, or terrorizes tween girls to boost engagement, that one is really on us. We’re mad because we all feel like Winston Smith of George Orwell’s 1984: Being watched by a telescreen that can polices our speech and, more and more, our thoughts. Worse, we feel like morons because we did it too ourselves. And we should feel like blockheads. For a small dopamine rush of social media, we’ve abandoned that most unsung of our ancient cultural traditions, specifically the age-old fear of being punched in the mouth for acting like an insufferable ass.
Behind the scenes, though, Facebook’s legal questions pose a more concrete problem. The company seems to have been lying to both investors and advertisers (on whom their revenue depends) about platform usage. That would be both illegal and, because it isn’t related to free speech, take the matter out of the hands of a befuddled congress.
For one thing, an alarming number of users are, in fact dead people whose spending habits are generally more static that advertisers like. And barring a séance, they are terrible at word of mouth. Back down in this mortal coil, there is a looming Levi’s Dilemma: that the young will abandon any product that they associate with their parents. The company estimates that it will lose some 40% of young users within the next two years. Since advertising makes up nearly all of the company’s revenues, this is a matter of concern for investors as well.
Facebook also may be lying to the government as well. The company has so far avoided the liabilities that newspapers and magazines (remember them?) have always faced by arguing that its content is user generated. But Facebook does employ editors – plenty of people as well as computer tricks – to curate, edit and promote content along with an oversight board to do the odd banning. By any definition of the word, it is deciding who gets published and promoted, and who gets resigned to a dark corner of the Mataverse controlled by a tiny group of twentysomethings.
A second argument is that the company acts like a “utility” which is using the term fast and loose. This is just ye olde village square hollerin’ – which has historically been the primary source of werewolf scares and witch trails. And is now the stomping grounds of anti-vaxxers, antifas, MAGA types and anarchists. None of which a sane country needs to be bend over to protect, much less force it to go viral. In truth, the traditional media hasn’t behaved much better, but at least they have some accountability over what they publish.
To wit, a sensible, free-market Murff solution to the Republic’s longstanding Facebook problem, one that requires no government intervention and is, most novel of all, completely fair: Like any other publisher Facebook - and all of social media - needs to be liable for its content.
That's it. Which has the advantage of not needing 32,000 pages of unread legislation to be passed into law.
This of course, would make the free model nearly impossible – or not as profitable. Which is precisely the point. Even a modest fee would cause usage to drop through the floor. A general subscription pay-wall rule of thumb is that you’ll lose 90% engagement overnight. It would also drive out the pesty criminal activity such as human, drug and every other sort of trafficking. They aren't inclined to give out credit card numbers.
The platform wouldn’t go away, but it would no longer be that carnival-mirror shorthand journalists have been using for the last decade instead of doing their actual jobs.
Just a thought.