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.
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:
- It’s something we all use, and
- 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.
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?
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.
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