Writing About Facebook Is Overwhelming

I’ve spent the past six weeks or so writing about Facebook, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. As of right now, I’ve just hit 12,000 words, which – as my friend CJ Eller pointed out on Discord – is long enough to be an ebook. (Here’s a draft if you’d like to read it early, for whatever reason, as well as a copy of my notes, which are uh… huge.) I expected to take a long time from the beginning and be extensive, but when I promised that I’d have it done by the end of the week last week, I was wrong (obviously.) I wanted to take a break from writing the post, itself for a while and instead discuss some of the things I’ve learned in the process.

I happened to choose one of the most newsy times in the history of the social network to write about Facebook. The advertising boycott you may have heard about was/is organized primarily by two campaigns (which overlap at many levels:) Stop Hate For Profit and Change The Terms. Both have made the news this past week. Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change – one of the organizations behind the latter – was interviewed by Nilay Patel on Tuesday’s episode of The Vergecast:

I know how this works. I’ve been Black my whole life. I know how this works because this is what happens when the police chief’s son breaks the law and the police chief tells his son, “You know, you’re putting me in a bad situation here.” It’s privilege, right? It’s because Facebook, at the incentive level, has an incentive problem. The same way the police chief has an incentive problem when his son is breaking the law and he doesn’t do anything to him the same way he would do something to the Black kid down the street.

Rashad Robinson on The Vergecast

The Columbia Journalism Review‘s Matthew Ingram spoke with three figures involved in the movement on CJR’s Gallery platform: Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press, Jenny Domino, legal advisor with the International Commission of Jurists, and Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

My favorite quote from the exchanges was from the first regarding Facebook’s recent meetings with leaders of the boycott campaigns:

Facebook had those demands three weeks before our meeting, and in fact, many of them are long-standing years-old demands that Facebook has failed repeatedly to meet. We expected Facebook to come ready to respond to our demands, to commit to timelines for implementation. Instead, Facebook wanted us to walk through the demands and have yet another conversation. They seemed to think that having Mark on a call for an hour without making any commitments would be enough to placate us.

Jessica González in conversation with the Columbia Journalism Review

“Observing Mark Zuckerberg as much as I have,” I write in the essay, “I feel especially sorry for the team attempting to maintain a dialogue with him.” Mr. Fuck’s infamous Congressional grilling in 2018 was a real point of interest for me – I stayed home from work and watched the whole thing, live, and I can tell you that he is painfully adept at saying nothing at all. We could theorize all day about why that is, but I’m sure it’s just because of how distance from reality he’s lived since his collegiate years.

I trimmed the silence out of Mark Zuckerberg’s Georgetown University speech. Probably illegally. I also published the transcript.

Speaking of Zucksterfuck, I have yet to decide whether or not I’m going to cite Joshua Topolsky’s call for his resignation, but it’s certainly worth sharing here:

You’re not a brilliant mind, your thoughts don’t illuminate the dark places in our world, your leadership is not bringing us to a better place. You’re an average person with average ideas, and you are unable to steer what you’ve built in a direction that benefits the actual human beings on Earth — who unfortunately are now tangled up in the web of products you’ve either built or acquired.

I am calling on you to resign your position as CEO of Facebook. Then, along with your board and a diverse, outside advisory council of historians, ethicists, sociologists, and civil rights leaders, a search should begin for a leader (or leaders) for your company who can thoughtfully and respectfully navigate the deep and dark waters Facebook has submerged itself in.

Joshua Topolsky, The Outline

Some other noteworthy Mark stuff I’ve discovered

I asked [Mark Zuckerberg] about Ello, an upstart for-pay social network built on the premise that it doesn’t show you ads and doesn’t harvest your personal information. When a social network does those things, Ello’s manifesto argues, “You’re the product that’s being bought and sold.” Zuckerberg’s take was, as usual, practical: whatever ethical merits it might have, the business model won’t scale. “Our mission is to connect every person in the world. You don’t do that by having a service people pay for.” I suggest that Facebook’s users are paying, just with their attention and their personal information instead of with cash. A publicist changes the subject.

Inside Facebook’s Plan to Wire The World,” by author Lev Grossman for Time.

I recently finished The Social Network for the first time (during which I was actually watching, anyway,) and was utterly bewildered by how… totally unlike the real Zuckerberg Jesse Eisenberg behaved. He doesn’t talk quickly or do Eisenberg’s throat-clearing thing. I just did some searching, though, and apparently everyone else thinks he did a great job. (NBC Sports commentators actually mistook him for Zucksterfuck in some Olympics coverage, which is the most Boomer Blunder in history.) Obviously, entertainment media know better than I.

Sorkin created an emotionally stunted, closed-off young man, and Fincher pulled something touching out of Jesse Eisenberg. Slender, with curly light-brown hair and dark-blue eyes, Eisenberg pauses, stares, then rushes ahead, talking in bristling clumps, like a computer spilling bytes. The self-assurance he gives Zuckerberg is audacious and funny. It’s also breathtakingly hostile. Yet, after many of Zuckerberg’s haughtiest riffs, a tiny impulse of regret quivers across his lips.

Influencing People” | The New Yorker

The Nazi Problem

The discussion of alternatives to Facebook has become a much larger part of my essay than I originally intended. I was originally going to mention Diaspora after some heavy disclaiming about its place as the most common answer among the open-source, privacy-worshipping, cryptofucking, decentralized, Linux-ey crowd when they’re asked well what the fuck do you suggest, then? The problem is that Diaspora is quite old and definitely showing its age at this point. As much as I thought I knew about this subject, just a basic search for “Facebook alternatives” lead me to services I’d never heard of before like Minds and WT.Social. Minds is almost entirely overrun with Nazis – I was literally unable to find any content that was not extremist right. WT.Social appears to be virtually dead only 9 months after launch.

Eventually, it became clear that a core dynamic at work in the cases of these “alternative social networks” is a pattern of alt-right, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, racist, etc. Shit Fuckers seeking them out because their ideologies are in some way disallowed on major social sites like Facebook and Twitter. The problem – as I’ve come to see it – is that there aren’t enough decent people seeking out these alternatives to balance out the shitty ones. It’s not even close! The result is that networks like Minds have become utterly intolerable places to spend any time, so decent people don’t stay there, and tech media’s careless handling of alternative social coverage mislead those who might have sought out alternatives into associating them with Nazis.

This vicious cycle is one of the most discouraging discoveries I’ve ever made, and it’s the primary reason I will likely continue to slip past my original deadline. I’d pretty much forgotten about VKontakte – the “Russian Facebook” – since I signed up for an account last Summer, but in actually giving it a try, I got truly excited about the way it functions. “In almost every way, the user experience is like Facebook’s… but competent.” It’s almost exactly how I would’ve envisioned Facebook would be by now if you’d asked me in 2015.

I realize these demos seem silly, but I think it’s silly you won’t just try these free services for yourself!

Then, over the weekend, I made yet another disturbing and discouraging discovery. From my draft:

I’d been unable to find much coverage using the terms “VK” and “VKontakte,” but I had more or less accepted that tech media had simply determined it wasn’t worth their attention, for whatever reason. I was pretty happy with my advocacy for this obscure, foreign take on the Facebook model and minutes away from finally calling it quits when it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried entering the original, Russian expression of the word: “ВКонта́кте.” Of course, an entirely different story regarding VK was immediately revealed that left a much different aftertaste.

“David Blue vs. Big Blue”

The only conversation about VK in American tech media, at least, surrounds (take a guess) it’s place as a haven for Nazi ideology. I first found a superb investigation by bellingcat (WARNING: that link is absolutely stuffed with Nazi imagery so please take care,) which references a 2016 story in The Atlantic as the origin of the shitheads’ migration and another from The Daily Beast:

The white nationalists on VK are often united through interest pages centered around politics or memes. Others are stand-ins for organizations, like the National Socialist Movement news page, or a homepage for the League of the South, a white-supremacist organization that wants Southern independence.

American Alt-Right Leaves Facebook for Russian Site VKontakte” | The Daily Beast
Yeah… this is the kind of shit I just can’t help myself from making.

Truthfully, I still don’t know how to proceed. I think it’s going to take a while longer to ponder how to frame the story around VK, and how much to advocate for it, but I do have a pretty great paragraph from my conclusion to leave you with:

Ultimately, I am not asking you to care about my feelings toward Facebook, but about your own. In its titanically unprecedented position, Facebook, Inc. cannot be exempt from any criticism from its users or otherwise. To date, the company has designed its services virtually irrespective of what users have actually asked for – substituting psychoanalysis for human volition – and gotten away with it, unlike any other company in their space. At the financial scale it’s operating at, we should expect absolute perfection from its services. Not just perfect from a single perspective, but malleably perfect from all possible perspectives. Instead of blaming themselves for difficulties using Facebook, older and less tech-literate users should blame the product vocally. No, this is not too much to ask from a company who’s clientele includes a third of all humanity.

“David Blue vs. Big Blue”

As always, I would appreciate your thoughts on any of this. The header on this WordPress site contains links to my accounts on just about every social network you could possibly think of, but joining the Extratone Discord is always the preferable way. You could also reply to the thread I just posted on the new r/extratown subreddit. I’d appreciate you taking the time to answer one or more of the polls I’ve posted below, but it’s okay if you don’t. (I just wanted to try out WordPress polling and see how well Mastodon embeds function in the new Gutenberg editor.)

I know there are hundreds of thousands of you mashing refresh on bilge.world waiting for this essay, but the great advantage of publishing my own words is that I have the freedom to extend my own deadlines when a topic deserves greater consideration, and I think this case definitely does. Hopefully – if I take the time to do it right – I will never have to write about Facebook ever again.

Polling About The Issue

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  1. I share some of your frustrations about the other social networks. I have been trying to leave Facebook pretty-much since it initially became public, which is when I joined. The problem is that almost everyone I know is on Facebook, and most wouldn’t bother to join anything else. A social network isn’t very social if you’re the only person on it! But of course, they’re only on Facebook themselves because the rest of their friends are. So it’s a feedback effect. If we could somehow coordinate a mass-exodus, all at the same time, something like Mastodon or Friendica would become an option… but such an action is as feasible and likely as herding cats. Having said that, I do remember a time when everyone my age was on MySpace, whilst all our parents were on Frends Reunited! And even in more niche circles, the mighty Witchvox, once the largest and most-visited Pagan website on the net, finally executed its last “/sbin/shutdown -p” at the start of this year after an impressive (but all too brief) 23 years online. So clearly, no network is too large or ubiquitous for a move (hopefully to a more ethical platform) to be theoretically possible!

    Twitter in particular seems to like to censor extreme (and not-so-extreme) views. The problem with banning opinions you disagree with (such as extremist content, left or right) – is that it adds an extra level of credibility to those arguments, and leaves them to bubble and fester unchallenged. Minds and opinions are not changed. If anything, their position is reinforced, as they see bans and takedowns as “persecution” by those who cannot form a counter-argument.

    If you ban extremists and their posts, you are not arguing the merits of your own point of view, or arguing why the extremist’s point of view is unacceptable. It creates the very echo-chambers we see all over the “social”-media world. The extremists also, somewhat ironically, flock to the more ethical social networks where normal users would flock if they enough of their friends had already discovered them. These other social networks then become known simply has hotbeds of extremism, which discourages the normal users from joining.

    By closing-down discussion instead of allowing the extremists’ views to be aired and then debunked, we are effectively saying, “your extremist view is so logical, correct and brilliant that we couldn’t possibly ever think of any way to counter it”. It also sends out the message that the extremist-view is so compelling that they can’t even be allowed to see it, lest they instantly become convinced by it! It implies that people can’t be allowed to see it, because they would never believe the moderate alternative view if they ever saw the extremist one! Censorship glorifies the extremist argument, while undermining your very own argument!

    I’d also rather the extremists stay on Twitter and Facebook. Firstly, it would leave the alternative networks with a more balanced user-base, removing one barrier to adoption for regular users. Secondly (this is only a half-joke), seeing as the main social networks are just spy tools of the NSA and GCHQ, we ideally would want the extremists on there and the ordinary civilians elsewhere!

      1. Yes of course. I’m glad it might be of some use. Thank you for taking the time to read. I suppose the usual requests apply, not revealing real-name if you know it, quoting out of context/changing meaning, etc. – but I get the impression you wouldn’t do any of that anyway. Won’t be offended in the slightest if you don’t use, but would be very happy if you do find it useful.

  2. For me use of facebook is for family only. That is what they use.
    Once I figure out Discord and Mastadon I may move there. I have not noticed a great alt-right presence there but I haven’t been looking either. I have no interest.
    “FaceMash” apparently was Mark’s first foray int mass hacking into his university’s servers to scrape pictures of female students so other males could “rate” them.
    Is this the kind of person you’d trust. I’d rather trust a used car salesman.
    What could go wrong?

    1. ^^This is one of my biggest concerns with Facebook. I remember the Business Insider article 10 years ago (https://www.businessinsider.com/well-these-new-zuckerberg-ims-wont-help-facebooks-privacy-problems-2010-5) which reveals a level of contempt that really rings alarm-bells for me. Yes, this was an exchange when Zuck was 19, but given Facebook’s track-record, I think news-article after news-article, right up to the present day, repeatedly demonstrates that this same viewpoint is ingrained and entrenched throughout the organisation.

      Of course they claim to give you control over your data, and care about your privacy. It’s the lipservice that makes all the users “shut-up and stop whining”, and go unquestioningly back to oversharing all of the intimate details that Facebook cons marketers into thinking will help them sell more stuff. If you look at how the privacy options are scattered and hidden-away in Facebook, the things the company repeatedly does until getting caught, and the the privacy options that haven’t been implemented on the platform, it’s obvious for all to see that they don’t really care. And why should they? You’re not paying (directly), therefore you’re the product. Yes indeed, what could possibly go wrong?

  3. It’s almost like people are naive…

    People (at least some of us) want Facebook to change, but it’s not neither a democracy, a republic, or even a government, it’s a corporation (that is, a business). Complaining about how it operates is a little like going to someone’s house party because all the cool people were there and then complaining that the bathroom isn’t ergonomic or you wish their pool was deeper and had a diving board. You’re not required to be in their house at their party and are only really there at their invitation.

    If Facebook won’t adapt to what it’s users want it to be (assuming it isn’t exactly what most people want) then people should quit using it and leave. It’s just a website. If the shareholders don’t like what they’ve invested into they should divest themselves. As a business it intrinsically exists in order to make money, but it doesn’t have any intrinsic obligation to anyone beyond the shareholders. Most specifically it is those who hold a /controlling share/ that is has an obligation to. Everyone else is effectively along for the ride, good or bad. At some level Zuckerberg started the company and it remains his. If he wants to run it into the ground, that’s his prerogative at some level.

    If we, the people, don’t like how companies operate, then we should be changing the rules (that is the laws which govern these things) not expecting others to do as we wish. If our elected leaders conspire with corporations to deny us our right to do, we should elect someone else. If things are so corrupt that they cannot be fixed, I guess a revolution is on the menu.

    I think the following is a more meaningful chunk of Mr. Topolsky’s essay, which on the whole smells slightly of ranting:

    “Until your power is transferred into the hands of a person or persons who respect humanity and work to undo the injustice your platform promotes, our participation in your imitation “town square” must be limited or ended altogether. Without our time and attention, you have nothing. Perhaps this is the moment collective action is needed not just on the streets of America, but in the places where we gather online — places like Facebook — that have also failed to protect its citizenry.”

    If we don’t like what someone does with the power we have given them, we should quit giving it to them. They have no obligation to transfer it to anyone else, because we don’t like what they did with it, but won’t quit giving it to them.

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