I feel bad for Facebook. Does that make me a horrible person?
I’ve been a part of Facebook since not long after the online social network allowed those who were not in college to join. It wasn’t much back then, but I had been exposed. I was a nascent adopter of all things internet and believed – fundamentally – that it would change the world (mostly for the better). As Facebook (and internet technologies) grew in popularity, I continued to believe that connecting more and more people would bring us closer together. That the physical borders would seem – somewhat – silly once we could all connect, share, create, comment and engage. A place for us to see a world beyond the ten blocks in which we lived. A place where it might be possible for those without means to have a better fighting chance. From behind the keyboard it’s hard to know who comes from wealth, and who is connecting from a terminal at a local library or a rural and impoverished nation thousands of miles away. People who might be trying to connect with a world beyond their addictions, and people who would be building the businesses of tomorrow. It was Pollyanna. This I admit. My general philosophy of the time was that 1-3% of the world’s population was evil and, perhaps, that might magnify more online, but the potential of what could be would outweigh those who might do evil.
The data harvesting didn’t even bother me that much.
Facebook (and the other platforms) using my data was the cost of entry. I wasn’t numb (or dumb) to this. This was an expensive service and platform to develop. It was not a non-profit or a business created for the common good. It was always understood that the equitable exchange of this free service with me (the user) would be my data. I am the product. My choice was to publish and post and be extremely personable on the platform… and not too personal. There’s a big chasm between personable and personal. I stayed far away from posting about things related to family and friends, and opted to use the platform to build a bigger platform for my published work. To make Facebook a place to share and connect, but mostly about things I’m thinking about at work or hobbies that might allow me to connect to a greater audience. With that use, I was hopeful that Facebook would get smarter and smarter and show me links, ads and people that are more relevant to my areas of interest. Even in that usage, I was well-aware that often when we seek out those that are interested in the same things as we are, or people who are “like us,” that we could be both expanding our global network, while at the same time, shrinking our world view. If all we follow is what we like, we are not able to see outside/differing perspectives. While the advertising enabled brands to target more specific audiences, Facebook’s ads (from the user’s perspective) were never that relevant or targeted. The retargeting and more always felt a bit clumsy to me (it still does). I’d search for something or mention something, and suddenly my feed was filled with ads that were (usually) out of context. Case in point: A friend would ask me about my backpack for travel. I would do a quick search on Google to find a link for it, copy it into Facebook for them in their post, and that brand would haunt my Facebook experience for weeks on end. It was a purchase I had already made. Many ad impressions suddenly wasted. Right targeting… terrible context. Facebook ads look smart to the advertiser but stupid to the user. Mostly.
Then, the past few years…
The list of Facebook horrors have become mind-bending. Data, manipulation, fake news, questions of democracy, harassment, algorithms gone wild, and much more. People want Facebook’s leaders to move aside and clean it all up. If you have the time, Vice’s Motherboard recently published a fascinating look into the challenges at Facebook titled, The Impossible Job: Inside Facebook’s Struggle to Moderate Two Billion People:
“These situations have been largely framed as individual public relations fires that Facebook has tried to put out one at a time. But the need for content moderation is better looked at as a systemic issue in Facebook’s business model. Zuckerberg has said that he wants Facebook to be one global community, a radical ideal given the vast diversity of communities and cultural mores around the globe. Facebook believes highly-nuanced content moderation can resolve this tension, but it’s an unfathomably complex logistical problem that has no obvious solution, that fundamentally threatens Facebook’s business, and that has largely shifted the role of free speech arbitration from governments to a private platform.”
Do you believe that Facebook is evil?
Better question: do you believe that this is what Facebook intended for their platform/business? Do you believe that this is good for business? It’s easy to get upset about what happened to our data. It’s easy to threaten to sue or leave the platform. It’s easy to armchair quarterback that things at Facebook must change. It’s nearly impossible to cogently discuss solutions. Even journalists and bigger thinkers struggle with the always-posed question: If you were running Facebook what would you have done differently, and how would you fix it? The scorched earth solution of “shut it down” seems to be the only answer… but is that a fair and logical answer?
Facebook to me.
I am a member of a handful of private Facebook groups that have enriched my life beyond comprehension. I have created a private group for non-fiction writers that has been – without a doubt – a place that has spared my sanity and allowed me build support and friendships that I could have never imagined, with those who toil in the same lonely fields as I do. I have connected to long-lost friends and family members. I have watched people share and create content that has made me laugh hysterically, cry with emotions, and moved me in ways that movies, books, television or even a conversation at a cafe never could have. During business travels, I have used Facebook’s search functionality to meet-up with people for a meal, for a coffee or for a tour of their homeland. These digital connections have created tangible roots in my physical world… and they have made me better for it. For this, I love Facebook. I love it hard.
I feel bad for Facebook.
Tom Peters tweeted this about two years ago:
“The sole concern of Google and Facebook is to convert the most intimate details of your life into revenue. A few billion bucks of Zuckerbergian philanthropy does not offset the catastrophic human damage caused by his life-dessicating invention.”
I’m one of Tom’s biggest fans. His tweet rings true. We should be mad. We should be mad as hell. It seems like we are. And, yet, as I sift through my newsfeed, all I can see are a lot of powerful posts… hopes for this New Year, the mourning of a lost parent (that I would not have known about had we not been connected on Facebook), some friend’s photo of a sunny vacation and more… my heart is warm and full. I find myself thinking about Tom’s haunting tweet, but also loving just how connected things have become. These real interactions between real human beings that take place in this digital platform have made my life better… much better.
Is it so wrong of me to still love Facebook, to be mad at them for everything that has happened, and to feel bad for them as well?