a solution to facebook: regulation, yes, but also a simpler tech

By | September 18, 2020

(Facebook HQ, 2024) Rust | Ampersand72 | Flickr)

The Social Dilemma (Netflix) does a great job explaining how Facebook and Google work, and, dare I say it, completes the picture I’ve been trying to paint in previous blog posts better than I could. It’s definitely worth a watch: essentially, the business model of both (and therefore nearly all digital-only business) relies on capturing, retaining, diverting and monetizing your attention. The sleight of hand is to make you feel that you’re connecting to your friends and interests. Whereas in reality you’re being sucked into interacting long enough to get your attention diverted to advertising.

So we knew that, we just didn’t necessarily know exactly how it worked, and how sophisticated and relentless it was. The documentary’s conclusion: It can’t be beat with technology. It needs regulation.

That’s where I’d disagree. Definitely there needs to be regulation. The Buzzfeed piece on the leaked memo of a fired Facebook employee (I don’t really see the need to share her name as she didn’t consent to it being used) illustrates just how little effort and resources Facebook has put into patrolling itself.

Indeed, the opposite: Bloomberg Businessweek this week shows how much effort Facebook has put into not having to patrol itself. Here’s the piece’s broad assertion:

Zuckerberg isn’t easily influenced by politics. But what he does care about—more than anything else perhaps—is Facebook’s ubiquity and its potential for growth. The result, critics say, has been an alliance of convenience between the world’s largest social network and the White House, in which Facebook looks the other way while Trump spreads misinformation about voting that could delegitimize the winner or even swing the election.

In other words, not only is the world’s largest social platform aware of the extent to which misinformation and misdirection can shape an individual’s beliefs — about themselves, about other people, about their country’s leadership — but that this can actually become a lever for political cover to support the company’s growth.

So it’s obvious, a no-brainer, that regulation has to happen. Regulation needs to be in place holding these platforms responsible, effectively, for every piece of content that is on there, in the same way any publisher or broadcaster is responsible. While some of this could be automated — searching for bots, tweaking algorithms so conspiracy theories don’t become memes that suck the vulnerable further down a lucrative but self-destructive wormhole — much of it is going to have be manual. As the leaked memo illustrates, a lot of this is just too hard to leave to computers; nor can it be done by outsourced drones. I don’t see any other way around it.

Sure, it’s going to hurt their margins, may even make parts of it unprofitable, but I believe the equation is quite a simple one. If Facebook alters in any way content that we post to it then it becomes a publisher, and so acquires the rights and responsibilities of a publisher. It does that all the time, prioritising some stuff over others, converting the links you add — checking first whether it is a banned link or not — to one that will then, when you click on it, warn you that you’re leaving Facebook. All of this is the hallmark of a publisher, so it’s obvious that eventually Facebook, and every digital platform like it, will be required to comply with the law affecting publications.

Not all of this will be good. In some countries restrictions on publications are politically onerous, but it’s inevitable. It will be a test of Facebook’s mettle about whether it will allow itself to become a quasi state broadcaster or publisher under such conditions, but that’s talk for another day.

For now I want to offer a simple alternative. We already have a solution to the problem of Facebook, Twitter etc, if all we’re looking for is a simple way to stay in touch with people, institutions and news. It’s called RSS.

RSS, or rich site syndication/really simple syndication, is a standard allowing updates to be fed from a source to a recipient without lots of complicated clutter in between (accounts, passwords, cookies etc, unless you want them). For a while it was the darling of the world. Certainly mine. It’s been around since the halcyon days of 2000/1, when there was little interest in monetizing content, or dumpster-diving for personal information. Indeed part of its beauty lay in the fact that you could subscribe to something without the producer of that content needing to even know your email address.

Indeed, RSS was the (technical) model that Facebook and Twitter drew on. Arguably it was the failure of RSS to adapt (and get itself out of a fratricidal hole) that opened the space up for Facebook and Twitter to move in. But essentially the principle has always remained the same: a river of content, selected by the user, pushed rather than pulled, which can include text and multimedia.

I haven’t ditched Facebook yet because it helps me understand the scale of the problem a little, but it’s largely a wasteland for my friends, most of whom are no longer on Facebook, or have disappeared from my feed because of poor algorithms (yes, the black box eventually disappears up its own ass, I suspect, as it tries to dig us every deeper rabbit holes).

Facebook, and to a certain extent Twitter, have left the door open to an alternative in part by fiddling with that river model, which leaves open an opportunity. There’s no reason RSS couldn’t rise to the occasion and replace it.

If I could easily subscribe to a personal RSS feeds of my friends in a simple, secure environment, free of sneaky attention-seeking widgets, I would be deliriously happy. We would be free of the neediness of desperately seeking approval, the worry that we may have missed something, the ads, the distractions.

Perhaps someone has done this already. And of course there would be issues. But we have to start somewhere. I’m not talking about a platform; I’m talking about a standard, that could be used by any app, even existing ones like email or chat, or a browser.

And I do agree with two other points made on The Social Dilemma:

  • that this technology is not going to go away. That the ability to influence us, to outsmart us, is not going to remain at this level. It’s going to improve. And we aren’t showing any signs of getting smarter, definitely not at the same rate;
  • that we shouldn’t allow those with technology to try to kid us into thinking they have the solution to the problem they have created.

But those points to me suggest another solution: an appropriate technology solution. Perhaps we don’t need something so complicated to stay in touch with our friends. I have resurrected an old (non-digital) birthday calendar and I try to make a point of sending birthday greetings to anyone on it. I feel that is cheating less than having a digital calendar, or Facebook, do it. So perhaps staying in touch with our friends, either on a daily basis or an annual one, doesn’t need to be overly complex either.

Anyone care to start the ball rolling?

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