Question: What’s stopping us from just taking over Facebook?

We live in an era of rage, and rage is an appropriate response to the nearly unprecedented level of cultural and political corruption, but unless outrage has a productive direction to go in, it just ends up with…well, with Trump & Co. What we need is creativity, imagining new possibilities for society, beyond the sound-bytes and clichés that both conservatives and liberals have been fighting about for decades.

So, here’s an idea: We take over Facebook

The absolute domination of the Internet by corporations like Facebook has created social problems that we’re only now beginning to really understand and to talk about. The algorithms implemented by corporate giants like Facebook (and Google) are done so on a strictly for-profit basis, which results in funneling away profits from the organizations that actually provide the content (like journalists and news outlets). Basically, they skim off the top, like the mafia.

The algorithms also manipulate users, focusing on content that arouses tribal political loyalty rather than displaying thoughtful and diverse ideas. This isn’t a problem with algorithms themselves, it’s about how they are being used: to generate profit for an elite and privileged few.

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A similar thing holds true for Amazon.com. Facebook and Amazon merely control the platform. It’s similar yet again for Google, even for Netflix. It’s all about the platform, and this platform is a public platform:

  1. It’s something we all use, and
  2. It’s something that only works because a lot of us use it.

This is why we talk about “social” media, but here’s the thing: social institutions work best under the democratic control of society, or at least when there is social accountability using some form of social democracy. Healthcare, for example, has been a dismal failure as a capitalist venture.

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So why not seize the platform? Or simply develop another of the same platform that we all use. We are the users, hence we are all shareholders, yet the platforms are controlled by a privileged few.

It doesn’t even make economic sense, what we’re doing, because it violates free market principles. Amazon is the most obvious example. There’s simply no point for Amazon to be skimming off the top. Amazon could be a more effective marketplace if the Amazon corporation didn’t take a cut off the top. (Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has a net worth of nearly 100 billion, as of 2017, per Forbes.)

Yet this is so often how capitalism actually works in practice — in the real world capitalism always violates the principles of the so-called “free market” and we get massive monopolies, single corporations that swallow up the little guys and destroy real competition.

What makes more sense? To have a public platform that skims off the top, indefinitely, year after year after year, creating a billionaire class that controls everything? Or to have a publicly owned platform, accountable to the public, a democratic institution?

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This brings us to Roger McNamee, which is what prompted this blog. McNamee was a dude who got in on the ground floor of Facebook and Google, and he wrote an article recently, no doubt thinking he was being super clever and thoughtful with the provocative title How Facebook and Google threaten public health — and democracy.

McNamee actually does a good job locating the problem (I quote him at length, below), but his conclusion is boring and more than a little cliché: these mammoth corporations just need a little more regulation. Sigh.

I don’t expect to get much by way of creative thinking from someone like McNamee, but imagination is what we need as a direction in which to channel our justified outrage at a capitalist system that is little more than a mafia outfit, skimming off the top, paying off politicians, and working solely for the sake of generating more profit and more power. There is a better way.

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More money for them, less for you

Note: From the McNamee article

By making every experience free and easy, Facebook and Alphabet became gatekeepers on the internet, giving them levels of control and profitability previously unknown in media. They exploit data to customize each user’s experience and siphon profits from content creators. Thanks to smartphones, the battle for attention now takes place on a single platform that is available every waking moment. Competitors to Facebook and Alphabet do not have a prayer.

Facebook and Alphabet monetize content through advertising that is targeted more precisely than has ever been possible before. The platforms create “filter bubbles” around each user, confirming pre-existing beliefs and often creating the illusion that everyone shares the same views. Platforms do this because it is profitable. The downside of filter bubbles is that beliefs become more rigid and extreme. Users are less open to new ideas and even to facts.

Of the millions of pieces of content that Facebook can show each user at a given time, they choose the handful most likely to maximize profits. If it were not for the advertising business model, Facebook might choose content that informs, inspires, or enriches users. Instead, the user experience on Facebook is dominated by appeals to fear and anger. This would be bad enough, but reality is worse.

How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy | Roger McNamee | Opinion | The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/11/facebook-google-public-health-democracy?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+USA+-+Collections+2017&utm_term=251918&subid=3330772&CMP=GT_US_collection

6 thoughts on “Democratize Facebook

  1. I don’t have a Facebook presence, nor am I very familiar with how it works. From second-hand reports it sounds like a degraded version of blogging, with more selfies and cat videos and fewer discourses and discussions. In its heyday the blogosphere was a sort of self-organizing anarchy. But Facebook sure did take off in a hurry, leaving the blogosphere in its dust and depleting its energy. What does Facebook offer that blogs don’t? Is it the active linkages between people’s pages and posts that get fed to individual users without their having to go seek them out? Do you see Facebook, like the blogs, running out of steam in a few years?

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    1. Facebook is a more integrated and user-friendly than blogs. When Facebook first hit the mainstream, everyone was using MySpace, but MySpace allowed you to customize to your heart’s content, which was confusing and disorienting. Facebook standardized the platform so that the user experience stayed the same, regardless of whose page you were on or whose group you were in.

      Having open creativity sounds like a great idea, but once Facebook came on the scene, everyone left MySpace, en mass, and became Facebook users. Standardizing the platform was the key, and focusing on an easy, user-friendly interface. Other apps followed suite, and now it’s normative to make the interface as simple and clean as possible. Google did a similar thing when they captured the search engine market. All the other companies had their search pages filled with links and text and colors and icons, but Google came along with a clean, simple interface.

      From my experience, it’s actually much easier to use and easier to comment and engage people on Facebook than on blogs, there’s no logging in or wondering whether one is using their Blogger account or Word Press or some other platform. As a result, I actually have much more comment interaction of Facebook than on blogs. Comments on Facebook feel more conversational, like using an Instant Messenger (IM) app. Just like with an IM, you are notified when/as someone else is typing a comment. WordPress has tried to imitate this over the years, with limited success.

      That’s actually been one of my internal debates, over the years, about social media and blogging, because much as I hate Facebook, the platform itself is more conducive to conversations and to dialog than anything else I’ve experienced in the virtual world. And it’s the dialog, as much as anything else, that I’ve always felt was most compelling about the Internet.

      That being said, I like the blogging world for the more anarchistic bend. I also like owning my content. By contrast, all content posted on Facebook is owned by Facebook.

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  2. When I post on Facebook, I know that I’ll get conversations going. That’s just not the case here on the blog. I can post blogs for weeks without even getting a comment.

    Facebook also has the “Like” function, that people use, so you can kind of monitor which posts are interesting to people. This is good and bad, as far as I’m concerned. It provides more feedback, but it also encourages people to tailor their posts to the least common denominator.

    The reason there are so many vids of cats and dogs (on Facebook) is because that’s what’s popular. John, you talked about this a while back, in regard to pop culture, more broadly, making the point that certain forms of art and entertainment are more popular because they are more accessible, and that this isn’t a bad thing. If you and I and a few of our friends were hanging out in the living room, I could play the Beatles, knowing that most everyone is going to enjoy it. If I play some of the more obscure John Coltrane songs that I love, then some people will love it (those who are familiar with the way jazz works) but most won’t really get into it, and some will likely be irritated and want me to change the music to something that they can understand.

    That’s what I mean by tailoring a post to the least common denominator. If I post something about the 1% (or politics more generally) on Facebook, I’ll get a half dozen Likes, sometimes less, maybe a dozen Likes on a good day. And if that’s all I ever post, then eventually people will stop checking my page. It becomes a niche kind of a page, so Facebook sort of encourages us to tailor our posts to the least common denominator, i.e., post what’s popular and you’ll get a lot more Likes.

    Having said that, I still get far more conversations going on Facebook than on blogs. That’s been one of the hard parts about getting my blog going here, I’m just not getting any hits or comments or feedback of any kind. (You and I get a conversation going once in a while but that’s really about it.) To get a blog going requires either a) blogging for months on end with virtually no readers or b) investing a lot of time and money into funneling traffic to the site.

    So, that’s another thing Facebook does: Facebook circulates users through the pages much better than blogs. Starting (or re-starting) a blog is like writing, alone, on a desert island, wistfully watching the horizon line for any trace of a passing ship. There’s a romance to this, for sure, but the Facebook platform is more conducive to connecting people with similar interests. Of course that’s also a danger: people exist in Facebook bubbles. Everyone is interacting with people who think the same, with the same kinds of perspectives.

    I’ve had some limited success is breaking bubbles on Facebook, but not much. Facebook has done much to contribute to our current culture of Othering.

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  3. Just read this article today, about how governments are manipulating social media to win elections and to build support for government policy. To me it reinforces that point that a democratic form of ownership is the way to go.

    [quote]The governments of 30 countries around the globe are using armies of so called opinion shapers to meddle in elections, advance anti-democratic agendas and repress their citizens, a new report shows.

    Unlike widely reported Russian attempts to influence foreign elections, most of the offending countries use the internet to manipulate opinion domestically, says US NGO Freedom House.

    “Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate,” the US government-funded charity said. “Although some governments sought to support their interests and expand their influence abroad, as with Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe, in most cases they used these methods inside their own borders to maintain their hold on power.”[/quote]

    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/14/social-media-influence-election-countries-armies-of-opinion-shapers-manipulate-democracy-fake-news?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+USA+-+Collections+2017&utm_term=252307&subid=3330772&CMP=GT_US_collection

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  4. And then this article, that also came out this morning:

    Facebook has since revealed that it facilitated Russia’s efforts to interfere with US politics, allowing divisive political ads and propaganda that reached 126 million Americans.

    “I don’t feel like it’s working at all. The fake information is still going viral and spreading rapidly,” said one journalist who does fact-checks for Facebook and, like others interviewed for this piece, was not authorized to speak publicly due to the continuing partnership with the company. “It’s really difficult to hold [Facebook] accountable. They think of us as doing their work for them. They have a big problem, and they are leaning on other organizations to clean up after them.”

    From ‘Way too little, way too late’: Facebook’s factcheckers say effort is failing, Journalists fighting spread of fake news raise concerns over possible conflicts of interest and say site has refused to disclose needed data

    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/13/way-too-little-way-too-late-facebooks-fact-checkers-say-effort-is-failing?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+USA+-+Collections+2017&utm_term=252135&subid=3330772&CMP=GT_US_collection

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  5. As you know I’ve been off the blog scene for quite some time now. In part that was because I didn’t have anything I wanted to write or to discuss, but also it’s because the blog world had lost a lot of energy. People migrated to Facebook and Twitter I think largely to have more frequent exchanges with others, even if those exchanges were pretty short. Texting offers that same sort of rapid-fire short-burst social connectivity (btw I don’t have a cell phone).

    My latest online project isn’t oriented around post-and-discuss but around launching collaborative projects as experiments in postcapitalist writing/publishing/reading. It’s a hard question how best to find the sorts of people who might want to participate in these projects, since they aren’t particularly oriented toward least common denominator interests. I agree that blogging isn’t the way to do it, and though I’ve recently gotten myself a Twitter account I don’t see that as the way to go either. I suspect that if I were to declare myself an online publisher of short stories I could get a reasonable number of submissions pretty quickly by getting the word out through emails to MFA programs and writing groups and so on. That still might be the best way to proceed: targeted emails rather than social media broadcasting.

    In response to your post, the question for me isn’t whether democratizing/socializing Facebook is a good idea; it’s how to go about it. Do you take over Facebook, or do you launch an alternative Facebook? It seems eminently doable: not much infrastructure investment required, plus the content is freely produced and distributed. Same with Amazon and Uber and other platform-based businesses What is it that capital provides? Mostly hype. Programming? A lot of it is built using modular shareware. What are the obstacles and what are the ways around them? Or maybe it too late to catch up with that train: maybe try to design and build what’s next…

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