The world didn’t end, now what?
It’s hilarious the way Congress is trying to leverage consumers’ revolt against social media when very few of its members even understand how it works. Consider this excerpt from a chapter named “Social Media Menace” in my 2019 book Gold, God, Guns & Goofballs, “You know they sell your data for money, right? That is their business. They let you use their powerful and fast servers for exploitation, not as a measure of good will to the community. They are “for profit” companies and we’re their slave workers, generating free content that maintains and builds their user bases. They keep sucking our souls into folders for sale, again and again.”
You are NOT a customer of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social media platform you use for free. You are simply a stringer, adding content and working for the man without pay. In this case, that man is Mark Zuckerberg. During the fiscal crisis in 2008, we heard the term “too big to fail.” Well, let me introduce a new one, “too big to control.”
Two things during the week amplified this subject for me. An old college buddy sent me a link to a video talk given by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, visual artist, computer philosophy writer, technologist, futurist, and composer of contemporary classical music. Mr. Lanier is the founder of virtual reality. His company, VPL Research, led the industry by becoming the first to sell VR goggles and wired gloves in 1985. Jaron’s 2018 video explains why we find ourselves where we are in our technological world. If you have more than an hour to watch and listen, here you go. Heads up though, Lanier is not the greatest public speaker.
Here are my three major takeaways from Jaron’s video. 1. Social media is a drug, 2. Assholes like us who use it aren’t the customers so we don’t have a say about anything. After all, who takes advice from drug addicts? 3. The two forces in conflict are free, open-source technology vs. media superstar billionaires who want to own the internet for fame and huge personal profit. The power of money wins in the end, and open source intellectual property just hurts the creators who give it away.
The other thing that occurred, was the appearance of a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, on Sixty Minutes, which exposed what the social media giant has been and not been doing in terms of protecting children and teenagers from harmful products, posts and putdowns from peer groups. She alleges that Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other services managed by the Zuckerberg “monopoly” did research which showed damaging data, such as 6% of American kids tracing their desire to commit suicide to posts on their social media platforms. Up until now, Facebook has managed to keep this data secret.
Ms. Haugen also alleges that her group, the Facebook Civic Integrity Team, was put in place before the 2020 election to guard against disinformation but disbanded afterward when the company reverted to the engagement algorithms used previously. Haugen is a specialist in “algorithmic product management,” and previously worked on several ranking algorithms similar to the one Facebook uses, so she understands the inferiority of an algorithm as compared to human oversight.
Frances Haugen is not some disgruntled employee; she is a true political activist. According to CNN, “About a month ago, Haugen filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that the company [Facebook] is hiding research about its shortcomings from investors and the public.” She also leaked documents to the Wall Street Journal, which published a multi-part investigation showing that the company was aware of problems with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation and the harm caused, especially to young girls, by Instagram.”
The bottom line of all these disclosures is that Facebook and Zuckerberg care more about profits than harm to their subscribers. Again, let’s not forget this major point. Facebook’s customers are the advertising agencies, large corporations and research firms who pay Facebook billions of dollars every year, not us posters of cat and baby pictures.
I was just about to post a link to this new post when I discovered Facebook was down, and since I have been banned from Twitter for life, I had no way to promote this latest diatribe. Nonetheless I still had readers at this site and didn’t at all miss Facebook while it was inert. It was like not drinking for a few days, and there you have it. Jaron Lanier compared constant use of Facebook or Instagram to gambling. When we lose, we play again. When we win, we play again. When we feel like an outsider, we push our way to the front of our page. For just one second, we all want to be famous, we all want to be Trump, or Musk, or even Kanye. When people say stupid things, we get angry and post twice as much. It’s anger that pulls us back in, again and again.
People who believe lies and conspiracy theories continually post stupid messages and memes. In turn, we post put-downs containing quotes of their mistruths, which helps the lies grow more powerful than truth. Most of the social media landscape is just one big food fight with members of this sick club putting each other down. It’s easy to fall into the abyss. A relative asked me this stupid question, “What gives you the right to say that to me?” I simply replied, “Because it’s free — and I am now free to unfriend you.” See what I did there? I used my Facebook voice.
You know that social media will only get more screwed up should the government get involved. Despite all the historic uproar and legislation, we still sell cigarettes and, according to the CDC, “Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.” What have we learned?
How did the government’s break up of Bell Telephone help us? We have slowly returned to that same road with only two or three major cellphone players. Breaking up the telephone monopoly has not made anything better for us. I pay hundreds of dollars each month for phones and phone services.
The algorithms at Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and all the other social media sites weren’t designed to be evil. They were created with the same loving care our mothers used when making our favorite dishes. Once mom figured out what got our plates empty, she made the same dishes over and over again, not realizing the unhealthy ingredients and preparation methods were harming us. Facebook isn’t about to slow down “likes” or censor everything they believe is wrong. The fact is, they can’t. Doing so would require a dedicated “person editor” for just about every user. Why do mass shooters keep steaming their dirty deeds? Because they can. Facebook is not fast enough to stop a speeding bullet. The real question is will they be able to stop an out-of-control Congress?
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