On Fixing Social Media: Why Fear Unintended Consequences?

In an excellent post on the blog Librarian Shipwreck, the author reminds us to take a more expansive view of the so-called Facebook problem. The article lands direct hits on most of the big nails (for instance, that we cannot trust Facebook to fix Facebook), but perhaps its most critical observation is the one about a difficult conversation we are not having at all.

As mentioned in my recent post, it is hard to imagine that Congress will not soon adopt legislation prohibiting social platform practices which are believed to directly aggravate health hazards among teens and tweens. That’s where the “Big Tobacco” analogy holds up, but also (I suspect) where it ends. Mitigating specific dangers, like algorithms that foster platform addiction or removing disinformation and conspiracy peddlers, is all necessary, but also low-hanging fruit on the edges of a dense, untamed grove into which few of us wish to venture. As Librarian puts it:

Too often it seems that we are singling out companies like Facebook for invective so that we don’t actually have to talk about our society’s reliance on computers and the Internet. Thus, Facebook gets held up as the scoundrel that is responsible for quashing the utopian potential of computers and the Internet—a potential that will be surely redeemed by the arrival of Web3. Yet the fantasies about Web3 sound very similar to the fantasies that originally surrounded Web 2.0 which in turn sounded a heck of a lot like the fantasies that had surrounded the original Web which in turn sounded a heck of a lot like the fantasies that were first spun out about personal computers which in turn sounded a heck of a lot like the fantasies that were first spun out about computers. The danger here is that we are vilifying Facebook (villain though it surely is), to save us from having to think more deeply about computers and the Internet.

If I may be so rude as to compress that:  Librarian makes the unimpeachable argument that Bullshit 3.0 is just a faster version of Bullshit 2.0. The bullshit in this case is the belief that the internet is, or ever was, something transcendent. Because at the same time that Barlow was scribbling the hubristic Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, money—a lot of money—was changing hands on the promise that somehow, someday, networked computers would be a more efficient way to sell soap. 90s-era conversations about targeted advertising asked whether consumers would tolerate the privacy invasions necessary to achieve those aims, and eventually, Google and Facebook proved that our transition into that brave new world could be almost frictionless.

The dream of an internet that operated ethically, yet beyond the laws of “weary nations”—a dream the utopians lament as having died sometime in the last several years—was never alive in the first place. That supposed goldilocks period, often referred to as the wild west, was not a brief glimpse of the web as it was meant to be, but an interlude of disarray and experimentation on the backend, while a whole generation played the role of lab mice on the frontend. And, sure, it seemed idyllic; the digital natives were all children.

It turned out that we were not very resistant to the internet crawling into our private lives while teaching the machines to “know us better than we know ourselves,” as former Google chairman Eric Schmidt liked to say. And arguably, we crossed that threshold so easily for two main reasons:  1) because the features and conveniences these companies provided were initially cool and then indispensable; and 2) because we did not believe, or even imagine, how hazardous the bargain would be.

It is an understatement to say that we are currently brimming with proposals to “fix” social media—especially Facebook—and that overstuffed suggestion box naturally provokes the industry lobbyists and “digital rights” groups to rally in defense of the status quo and to warn against “unintended consequences” that could result from one mandate or another. But this fearful narrative is predicated on the assumption that the status quo is acceptable, if not very good. On the contrary, social media’s CV comprises a dark litany of unintended consequences with virtually no oversight of the people running the experiment. And the items in bold on that list are nothing short of disastrous.

Who really anticipated that when we started connecting with old friends and sharing snapshots, that we were feeding data into a machine that could, and would, be used to foment a genocide in Asia or animate enough conspiracy theory to rattle the foundations of liberal democracy worldwide? Every problem caused by social media is an unintended consequence. At least it better be. As whistleblower Frances Haugen opined in her testimony on Capitol Hill, “I don’t think at any point Facebook set out to make a destructive platform.”

That’s probably true. So, if the toxic results of social media are unintended, let’s not be too timid about whatever new unintended consequences may result from efforts to address those problems. To Librarian’s point, we should instead step back, rewrite the premise, and have that “deeper conversation about computers and the internet” by rejecting the belabored lexicon of superlatives used to describe cyber life as something approaching the spiritual. It isn’t. It never was. And as a putative catalyst to “make democracy work better,” it’s a total bust. But to be fair, it is a pretty sophisticated way to sell soap.

Photo by: evgenyyjamart

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