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Facebook Wants To Help Creators And I'm Worried.
What could go wrong?
Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.
Back in 2016, my then-boss Mat Honan interviewed Mark Zuckerberg as he launched Facebook Live. I remember reading the story and stopping cold at this line from Zuckerberg:
“We built this big technology platform so we can go and support whatever the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate are as time goes on.”
Zuckerberg was describing a vague, idealized version of online video. Something resonant, harmless, uplifting, and viral — like an Ice Bucket Challenge video. But my thoughts went first to potential abuse. I remember messaging colleagues on Slack with something along the lines of “streaming a mass shooting might also classify as ‘emotional, raw and visceral’ video.” I hated that my mind immediately went toward something so morbid, but the feeling is hard to ignore if you’ve ever had to watch an ISIS beheading video for your job. You don’t need to spend much time online to understand that any tool can and will be used in ways that make its creators deeply uncomfortable.
Three months later, Diamond Reynolds went live on Facebook to stream the last moments of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s life after he had been shot by police while attempting to provide his license and registration at a traffic stop. Three million people watched the clip on the first day. My reporting suggested that the video had caught Facebook flat footed — Reynolds’ footage was initially removed from the platform before being reinstated. It was a graphic, disturbing video but it was also a powerful, viral document of police violence. I sent Facebook a series of questions about how they planned to promote and moderate graphic live videos. The company did not respond to the questions. “We understand and recognize that there are unique challenges when it comes to content and safety for Live videos,” they wrote back.
Facebook’s issues with Live continued: a Cleveland man livestreamed a murder in 2017; that same year, some teen-agers tortured a disabled man and streamed it on the platform. People have committed suicide on Facebook Live. Slowly, the platform honed its rules. By the time a white supremacist livestreamed the murder of 51 people in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Facebook had a global team of hundreds working around the clock to keep the horrific video from spreading on its platform.
Eventually, the company built up some infrastructure to help prevent abuse. But where were these best practices on the day Facebook rolled the tool out to billions of users globally? I found no mention of abuse or safety tools in Zuckerberg’s live video announcement — just bromides like “we’re entering this new golden age of video.” What exactly was he picturing when he imagined raw and visceral video?
I was reminded of that rhetoric again this week as I listened to Zuckerberg announce the rollout of a suite of Facebook audio products in an interview with Casey Newton on Sidechannel. During the 50-minute event, Zuckerberg demonstrated that familiar enthusiasm and positivity for the platform and its new, empowering tools. As he revealed a few of its new features — especially its experiments with “voice morphing” and “voice effects” — I got that familiar pang of ‘‘how will this be abused?’ When asked whether the company could roll out new tools responsibly, his answers were characteristically vague. Facebook, he argued, now has well-staffed teams and experience moderating content. But then he admitted that audio is a different medium with new challenges. He remained fuzzy on the details, suggesting what Facebook chooses to enforce against in the world of audio is “going to be an open debate.”
Juxtaposed against 2016, I suppose you could see the mere mention of abuse as progress. Zuckerberg is acknowledging his tools will be abused, but I didn’t get the sense that he’d been thinking through the problems specific to the medium. Consider “voice morphing,” which seems like a great tool for stalkers or harassers. How is Facebook thinking about voice morphing or voice effects and abuse? Is there any way that altering voice might help bad actors with ban evasion? Maybe not, but Zuckerberg offered very little to assuage fears that these potential externalities had been gamed out in Menlo Park.
I felt this lack of foresight most acutely as Zuckerberg discussed creators — which he seems to be fascinated with right now. He appears keen on Facebook acting as an intermediary to help everyone from influencers to podcasters to newsletter writers monetize their work outside of media companies. “A big part of the creative economy is that it's enabling individuals, and shifting power from some traditional institutions to individuals to exercise their own creativity,” he said. “And I think that that's a positive trend in the world. It's really empowering for a lot of people, and allows a lot of new stuff to get created.”
This is classic Zuckerbergian language that focuses on enabling and empowering individuals — the little guy. It’s incredibly optimistic, in large part because he is painting with the broadest possible brush. Stuff will get created! People will get paid! Net positive! The devil is in the details, of course. And details are sparse.
I don’t mean to suggest that Zuckerberg isn’t having some deeper thoughts about the creator economy — it’s clear he’s interested in how Facebook might help people discover new creators and how much of a cut they should take as the middleman. Zuckerberg mentioned “portability,” which means he’s thinking about how much freedom creators ought to have from being platform-dependent. And the company is building out its “Stars” tipping tool, which will eventually allow for subscriptions and one-time purchases. These are good things. And in an idealized internet, these tools will help people.
But we don’t live on an idealized internet. And we certainly don’t live on an equal one. The creator economy, especially, is a lopsided one — the top creators rake in exorbitant amounts of money off huge followings, while the vast majority operate in a precarious gig economy fashion. As venture capitalist Li Jin demonstrated rather brilliantly back in December, there is no real “Creator Middle Class.” Here are a few stats from that piece:
On Patreon, only 2% of creators made the federal minimum wage of $1,160 per month in 2017. On Spotify, artists need 3.5 million streams per year to achieve the annual earnings for a full-time minimum-wage worker of $15,080, a fact that drives most musicians to supplement their earnings with touring and merchandise. In contrast, in America in 2016, 52% of adults lived in middle income households, with incomes ranging from $48,500 to $145,500.
At present, Zuckerberg’s new creator focus doesn’t seem to offer much of a solution to the middle class problem. Facebook might be able to offer slightly better margins for creators than, say, a platform like Substack, and that’s admirable — but is that a viable solution to this problem? Or is rolling out a tipping tool to 2 billion-plus people only further normalizing the internet’s tendency to monetize every single moment of a person’s online existence to eek out a lower middle class income? Even the name of Facebook’s tipping tool — “Stars” — doesn’t inspire a ton of faith on this point. A star system is not what you build if you’re looking for sustainability or equality or if you’re meaningfully trying to “shift power from some traditional institutions to individuals.” But a star system is certainly what you might build if you have a fundamental belief in scale and growth as a universal good.
As with live video, Zuckerberg seems unwilling to game out the negative externalities of his tools before he introduces them to billions of people. And sure, some of this is just a public relations strategy — stay positive! But it also seems like a failure of imagination from one of the most powerful people in the world. The creator economy is not merely a buzzword or a bunch of kids inventing fun dances where they don’t move their legs in their bedrooms — it’s a new, powerful economic class. But it seems that many in the tech space refuse to look at the creator space as a labor issue and seem determined to view the livelihoods of their users as somewhat arbitrary outcomes of algorithms and app designs.
Zuckerberg is likely interested in the creator economy because it is maturing rapidly. There continue to be more interesting potential creator career paths and monetization channels. People with the immense privilege to go independent (self very much included, here!) are doing so with greater frequency, generating buzz. Facebook has taken notice and is throwing their immense scale into the mix, which only makes sense.
But the reason I don’t trust Zuckerberg or Facebook on this issue is precisely because of that scale. Facebook can jump on the creator economy train and build some clone apps of other social platforms and siphon off some good money with zombie products. But this move doesn’t feel in service of pushing the creator economy forward. It feels like a land grab, not an attempt at innovation. You could argue this is overly cynical but, as Hot Pod’s Nick Quah wrote recently, “whether by malice or neglect, there’s very little historical reason to even remotely trust Facebook on anything related to creators and media businesses.”
It’s worth asking what it might look like if Facebook was genuinely trying to push the creator economy forward in a more equitable, sustainable way. It might look at bit like Li Jin and Lila Shroff’s recent proposal for a Universal Creative Income (UCI), where platforms “use company revenue to fund a … program for emerging creators.” Facebook is one of the few platforms in position to attempt an effort this ambitious.
Instead, Facebook seems to be playing catch-up and hoping its size advantages will be enough to own a big chunk of the market. Honestly, they’re probably right. But the company remains blinded by their obsession with scale and the notion that Facebook’s power to connect is “de facto good.”
I think if you look at the grand arc here, what’s really happening is individuals are getting more power and more opportunity to create the lives and the jobs that they want. And to connect with people they want. And to connect to the ideas that they want and to share the ideas that they want. And I just think that that will lead to a better world.
This is the broad brush rationale that leads to shallow thinking. Believing that your product will ultimately lead to a better world — independent of implementation — is an excuse to ignore the potential sociological, anthropological and political impacts of what you are building until it is too late. You could argue this is an admirable form of optimism, but when you’re playing with live ammunition across billions of users, I’d argue it’s closer to delusion. For Facebook, dabbling in the creator economy is a fascinating experiment but, for those living in it, the stakes are higher. You could say it all feels very raw and visceral.
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