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Writing About Facebook Is Overwhelming

I’ve spent the past six weeks or so writing about Facebook, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. As of right now, I’ve just hit 12,000 words, which — as my friend CJ Eller pointed out on Discord — is long enough to be an ebook. (Here’s a draft if you’d like to read it early, for whatever reason, as well as a copy of my notes, which are uh… huge.) I expected to take a long time from the beginning and be extensive, but when I promised that I’d have it done by the end of the week last week, I was wrong (obviously.) I wanted to take a break from writing the post, itself for a while and instead discuss some of the things I’ve learned in the process.

I happened to choose one of the most newsy times in the history of the social network to write about Facebook. The advertising boycott you may have heard about was/is organized primarily by two campaigns (which overlap at many levels:) Stop Hate For Profit and Change The Terms. Both have made the news this past week. Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change — one of the organizations behind the latter — was interviewed by Nilay Patel on Tuesday’s episode of The Vergecast:

I know how this works. I’ve been Black my whole life. I know how this works because this is what happens when the police chief’s son breaks the law and the police chief tells his son, “You know, you’re putting me in a bad situation here.” It’s privilege, right? It’s because Facebook, at the incentive level, has an incentive problem. The same way the police chief has an incentive problem when his son is breaking the law and he doesn’t do anything to him the same way he would do something to the Black kid down the street.

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Matthew Ingram spoke with three figures involved in the movement on CJR’s Gallery platform: Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press, Jenny Domino, legal advisor with the International Commission of Jurists, and Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

My favorite quote from the exchanges was from the first regarding Facebook’s recent meetings with leaders of the boycott campaigns:

Facebook had those demands three weeks before our meeting, and in fact, many of them are long-standing years-old demands that Facebook has failed repeatedly to meet. We expected Facebook to come ready to respond to our demands, to commit to timelines for implementation. Instead, Facebook wanted us to walk through the demands and have yet another conversation. They seemed to think that having Mark on a call for an hour without making any commitments would be enough to placate us.

“Observing Mark Zuckerberg as much as I have,” I write in the essay, “I feel especially sorry for the team attempting to maintain a dialogue with him.” Mr. Fuck’s infamous Congressional grilling in 2018 was a real point of interest for me — I stayed home from work and watched the whole thing, live, and I can tell you that he is painfully adept at saying nothing at all. We could theorize all day about why that is, but I’m sure it’s just because of how distance from reality he’s lived since his collegiate years.

Speaking of Zucksterfuck, I have yet to decide whether or not I’m going to cite Joshua Topolsky’s call for his resignation, but it’s certainly worth sharing here:

You’re not a brilliant mind, your thoughts don’t illuminate the dark places in our world, your leadership is not bringing us to a better place. You’re an average person with average ideas, and you are unable to steer what you’ve built in a direction that benefits the actual human beings on Earth — who unfortunately are now tangled up in the web of products you’ve either built or acquired.

I am calling on you to resign your position as CEO of Facebook. Then, along with your board and a diverse, outside advisory council of historians, ethicists, sociologists, and civil rights leaders, a search should begin for a leader (or leaders) for your company who can thoughtfully and respectfully navigate the deep and dark waters Facebook has submerged itself in.

Some other noteworthy Mark stuff I’ve discovered

I asked [Mark Zuckerberg] about Ello, an upstart for-pay social network built on the premise that it doesn’t show you ads and doesn’t harvest your personal information. When a social network does those things, Ello’s manifesto argues, “You’re the product that’s being bought and sold.” Zuckerberg’s take was, as usual, practical: whatever ethical merits it might have, the business model won’t scale. “Our mission is to connect every person in the world. You don’t do that by having a service people pay for.” I suggest that Facebook’s users are paying, just with their attention and their personal information instead of with cash. A publicist changes the subject.

I recently finished The Social Network for the first time (during which I was actually watching, anyway,) and was utterly bewildered by how… totally unlike the real Zuckerberg Jesse Eisenberg behaved. He doesn’t talk quickly or do Eisenberg’s throat-clearing thing. I just did some searching, though, and apparently everyone else thinks he did a great job. (NBC Sports commentators actually mistook him for Zucksterfuck in some Olympics coverage, which is the most Boomer Blunder in history.) Obviously, entertainment media know better than I.

Sorkin created an emotionally stunted, closed-off young man, and Fincher pulled something touching out of Jesse Eisenberg. Slender, with curly light-brown hair and dark-blue eyes, Eisenberg pauses, stares, then rushes ahead, talking in bristling clumps, like a computer spilling bytes. The self-assurance he gives Zuckerberg is audacious and funny. It’s also breathtakingly hostile. Yet, after many of Zuckerberg’s haughtiest riffs, a tiny impulse of regret quivers across his lips.
Influencing People” | The New Yorker

The Nazi Problem

The discussion of alternatives to Facebook has become a much larger part of my essay than I originally intended. I was originally going to mention Diaspora after some heavy disclaiming about its place as the most common answer among the open-source, privacy-worshipping, cryptofucking, decentralized, Linux-ey crowd when they’re asked well what the fuck do you suggest, then? The problem is that Diaspora is quite old and definitely showing its age at this point. As much as I thought I knew about this subject, just a basic search for “Facebook alternatives” lead me to services I’d never heard of before like Minds and WT.Social. Minds is almost entirely overrun with Nazis — I was literally unable to find any content that was not extremist right. WT.Social appears to be virtually dead only 9 months after launch.

Eventually, it became clear that a core dynamic at work in the cases of these “alternative social networks” is a pattern of alt-right, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, racist, etc. Shit Fuckers seeking them out because their ideologies are in some way disallowed on major social sites like Facebook and Twitter. The problem — as I’ve come to see it — is that there aren’t enough decent people seeking out these alternatives to balance out the shitty ones. It’s not even close! The result is that networks like Minds have become utterly intolerable places to spend any time, so decent people don’t stay there, and tech media’s careless handling of alternative social coverage mislead those who might have sought out alternatives into associating them with Nazis.

This vicious cycle is one of the most discouraging discoveries I’ve ever made, and it’s the primary reason I will likely continue to slip past my original deadline. I’d pretty much forgotten about VKontakte — the “Russian Facebook” — since I signed up for an account last Summer, but in actually giving it a try, I got truly excited about the way it functions. “In almost every way, the user experience is like Facebook’s… but competent.” It’s almost exactly how I would’ve envisioned Facebook would be by now if you’d asked me in 2015.

Then, over the weekend, I made yet another disturbing and discouraging discovery. From my draft:

I’d been unable to find much coverage using the terms “VK” and “VKontakte,” but I had more or less accepted that tech media had simply determined it wasn’t worth their attention, for whatever reason. I was pretty happy with my advocacy for this obscure, foreign take on the Facebook model and minutes away from finally calling it quits when it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried entering the original, Russian expression of the word: “ВКонта́кте.” Of course, an entirely different story regarding VK was immediately revealed that left a much different aftertaste.

The only conversation about VK in American tech media, at least, surrounds (take a guess) it’s place as a haven for Nazi ideology. I first found a superb investigation by bellingcat (WARNING: that link is absolutely stuffed with Nazi imagery so please take care,) which references a 2016 story in The Atlantic as the origin of the shitheads’ migration and another from The Daily Beast:

The white nationalists on VK are often united through interest pages centered around politics or memes. Others are stand-ins for organizations, like the National Socialist Movement news page, or a homepage for the League of the South, a white-supremacist organization that wants Southern independence.

Truthfully, I still don’t know how to proceed. I think it’s going to take a while longer to ponder how to frame the story around VK, and how much to advocate for it, but I do have a pretty great paragraph from my conclusion to leave you with:

Ultimately, I am not asking you to care about my feelings toward Facebook, but about your own. In its titanically unprecedented position, Facebook, Inc. cannot be exempt from any criticism from its users or otherwise. To date, the company has designed its services virtually irrespective of what users have actually asked for — substituting psychoanalysis for human volition — and gotten away with it, unlike any other company in their space. At the financial scale it’s operating at, we should expect absolute perfection from its services. Not just perfect from a single perspective, but malleably perfect from all possible perspectives. Instead of blaming themselves for difficulties using Facebook, older and less tech-literate users should blame the product vocally. No, this is not too much to ask from a company who’s clientele includes a third of all humanity.

As always, I would appreciate your thoughts on any of this. The header on this WordPress site contains links to my accounts on just about every social network you could possibly think of, but joining the Extratone Discord is always the preferable way. You could also reply to the thread I just posted on the new r/extratown subreddit. I’d appreciate you taking the time to answer one or more of the polls I’ve posted below, but it’s okay if you don’t. (I just wanted to try out WordPress polling and see how well Mastodon embeds function in the new Gutenberg editor.)

I know there are hundreds of thousands of you mashing refresh on bilge.world waiting for this essay, but the great advantage of publishing my own words is that I have the freedom to extend my own deadlines when a topic deserves greater consideration, and I think this case definitely does. Hopefully — if I take the time to do it right — I will never have to write about Facebook ever again.

Editor-in-Chief, Neoyokel, Angst Wrangler. Writes about technology and culture intersecting across time and class. | davidblue@extratone.com

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