This Cambridge Analytica brouhaha is finally waking some people up to the idea that Facebook, in its current form, is probably a Bad Thing. This realization is GOOD, but I don’t think the assumed follow-up of: “delete my Facebook/shut Facebook down” is the best possible one. I say this because, whether or not anyone admits it, there ARE things people like about Facebook. Let’s tally them up:
- Staying in touch with friends, family (many of whom we otherwise wouldn’t keep up with at all)
- Getting the news (well, that it gets people to read news who otherwise wouldn’t at all is a good thing. The KIND of news they’re reading is mostly bad; more on that later)
- Seeing funny videos (let’s be honest; this is what most of us are on the platform for, and that’s a fine END but FB as its constituted today is a terrible MEANS for this purpose. That can be changed; more on that later as well)
- The dopamine hit of getting likes on our own posted content (we’re all whores for the likes, and I don’t expect anyone to apologize for or bemoan that fact)
What’s bad about FB:
- The ads (some are useful, most aren’t, and it leads to the following bullet, which is much, MUCH worse)
- The invasion of privacy that leads to our FB activity being turned into a ridiculously micro-tuned and precise profile of who we are and what we like that is then sold off to advertisers in a fashion we, the end user, have absolutely no visibility into, much less control over (and the stated protections FB takes on our behalf, allegedly, are routinely violated without penalty, as seen in, again, the current Cambridge Analytica mess)
- Their algorithms are essentially designed to drive you to look at ever-more extreme versions of the shit you actually like (YouTube has this problem as well, but way worse). So, if you’re mildly in favor of gun ownership and click on and engage with every post that supports gun ownership, eventually your feed will be filled with people demanding that any gun control advocates be gassed in camps. This isn’t ideal.
- They’re destroying every media outlet in existence by forcing them to pay to reach their users on Facebook even though FB does nothing to create the content that people actually want to see. Why the fuck should The Onion, for example, have to pay FB to promote its own posts when FB users clearly want to share The Onion’s posts on their own on a wide scale, for example? It’s not the Facebook part people want, it’s The Onion’s content. Yet the only person making any money on that transaction is Facebook. Fucking ghouls.
The vaunted Market offers no solution here, as it demands constant growth and Facebook is running out of new conquests to gain. Effectively every American who’s willing to use the service already is. So they have to up the average user’s engagement instead. Which they do through increasingly shitty ways. Sure, there’s still a few billion Third Worlders who can be enticed to join FB but they don’t really have any money to spend so they’re not that valuable to FB’s actual customers, who are the advertisers, so the engagement thing has to take precedence. Why on Earth FB can’t just hit a stable state of making billions of dollars reliably every year instead of being forced to grow by the insatiable maw of Mammon is something Capitalism pimps will tell you Is Just Because That’s The Way It Has To Be, but whatever, it’s going to lead to FB’s utter destruction the way things are currently going.
So: What can be done here? Some options:
- Facebook charges users so it can rely less on advertisers
- This ain’t gonna happen; FB still gets waves of its dumber users reposting terribly artifacted GIF memes claiming FB is gonna starting charging $5.95/mo. or something for access and THEY AINT GONNA PAY FOR THIS NO WAYS NO HOW and, well: I believe them. So FB knows this is a non-starter; one of the most-impossible acts in business is to start charging for something you originally gave away for free, so this idea is stillborn.
- Facebook offers a Pro tier so that those of us who really can’t stand the ads can opt out of them
- Yeah, no. FB makes more off of the ad profiles than it could ever charge even from ALL of its users, much less just a willing subset. And those of us with the disposable income and the willingness to pay for an ad-free Facebook are precisely the people Facebook’s advertising overlords most want to reach. So this, too, is a non-starter.
- Facebook gets increasingly user-hostile to the point that people just stop using the service. Remember mySpace? Yeah, me, neither. It can happen, but again, that’s not the goal I want. I want FB to be friendly and usable for its original purpose, not destroyed entirely.
The answer that comes to me to square all of these circles is: Nationalize Facebook. Facebook can serve a social good in providing communication channels for people who would otherwise be isolated. This is an increasingly huge health issue in the United States (and all developed nations), so the government providing an easy way for people to stay in better contact with each other would be a Good Thing.
The nationalized Facebook can also have all of the ads, tracking, etc., stripped right the fuck out of it. Fund the infrastructure and support costs out of taxes, like all necessary social services should be funded. Brands can fuck off, nobody ever signed up for Facebook out of a burning desire to have eight different Internet Mattress companies badger you six dozen times a day to buy a new bed.
But what about all those awesome cat videos and recipe smashups that you so joyfully consume all day on your feed now, how would you get them? Good news! It’ll happen the old-fashioned way (by “old-fashioned”, I mean the way it worked like a whopping five years ago); people will see shit on the greater, open Internet that engages them enough to want to share it. They can put a link in their feed on public Facebook that doesn’t containerize that content WITHIN FB itself, to where only FB can monetize it, but gasp instead you’ll click the link and it’ll take you to the ACTUAL CONTENT CREATOR’S WEBSITE. Where they can choose to monetize with ads, a paywall, or not, as their choice decides.
What a fucking idea, eh? Solves the current, vicious problem of Facebook cannibalizing the business of every company that actually makes the shit that people want to see, saving the media industry from its continuing consolidation into bland, cross-marketed mush for like four different companies. Would allow all the great indies that made the early/mid-00’s Internet a real fun place to be and do things on. A win-win.
“But… but… without the algorithm, I might run out of stuff to look at! What if my friends are being kind of quiet one day?!?!?!”
That would be good for you. Staring at a feed all day isn’t healthy; oh, there’s nothing new or interesting in your government Facebook feed? Great! Go do something else instead! It’s an opportunity! Come back tomorrow!
You’d have an easy place to go to see what all of your friends are up to and even engage with them if you so choose! I’m ambivalent about letting brands be part of it at all; if someone truly wants to see what, I dunno, Wendy’s or the Los Angeles Clippers have going on, sure, let them have a strictly opt-in-only gov’t FB account that people can choose to like and follow if their lives are sad enough. What they WON’T be able to do is pay in any fashion to promote their content into the feed of anyone who didn’t explicitly choose to see their shit. And we would make them pay heavily for the option, which would also help pay for the system’s upkeep.
I mean, we REALLY need to find a way to rollback advertising’s influence on our lives and choices. Everybody thinks they’re impervious to advertising, but the science proves: you aren’t. This shit affects everybody. It’s disfiguring the synapses of a whole new generation of children right now in ways we’re not even gonna realize for another decade. So, a government-owned Facebook would allow us to strip that horrible aspect of it right out of the system entirely or, in a begrudging nod to America’ raison d’etre (selling shit nobody needs to people who can’t afford it), we allow them to participate, but at a high-cost, strictly-regulated way. If it’s not worth it for them, great, they can fuck off and nobody gets hurt. If it’s worth it to them, they can pony the fuck up.
Think back to the mid-aughts when FB broke out of its .edu ghetto and really became mainstream: If you’re old enough, you remember that people signed up for Facebook long before it became the algorithmically-controlled, ad-laden cesspool it is today. I genuinely liked it when it was new-ish and its primary purpose was to show me a chronological list of what my friends were posting, with some static ads at the side of the feed that were obviously ads and separated as such and therefore basically ignorable. And, wow, that year or two where I reconnected with folks from my past, many of whom I had genuinely wondered about and wished I could reach out to in the years before Facebook, those were downright magical (I know this isn’t going to make any sense in like 30-40 years when everybody will have been used to being able to stay in touch with everybody at all times with ease from birth but man, it was really something for those of us who didn’t grow up that way). There’s no reason, other than capitalism, that it can’t go back to that and just be a modern version of the USPS, used by people to just stay in contact and maintain those human connections necessary for people to be healthy and happy.
We’ve got to get internet-enabled algorithmic advertising the fuck under control, it’s murdering us, and it’s making everything the Internet makes that could be cool actually suck. Since FB is the dominant single-point of entry for everybody’s use of the Internet these days AND the vector for the worst of the advertising malevolence, nationalizing the former so we can eradicate the latter seems to me to be the wisest course.
Plus, who doesn’t want to see Zuckerberg dance at the end of a noose?