What do you do about Facebook?
When I was little and would have stupid fights with my best friend, my mom would attribute it to "too much togetherness" and say we just needed some time apart.
I think social media has created a "too much togetherness" problem for all of us, and it would be better if we stepped back from this so-called connection. And that's exactly what I've noticed my more well-adjusted friends doing -- they've either left Facebook altogether or they're barely on anymore.
I'm not quite in that camp yet, but I'm getting there.
Great post, Charlie. I can’t help but wonder if the only thing that would have made a difference is *not* allowing Facebook to buy Instagram and WhatsApp, because those two acquisitions bolted on so many more users.
Right, “we are not supposed to be connected at this kind of scale” – at least not with newsfeeds under centralized, private oligopoly control. The best, most feasible option is a surgical unbundling, to shift control of amplification from Facebook to users and communities, without need for a full breakup. Even Twitter is open to this (Dorsey’s Bluesky initiative) and proposals are now being debated. See The Need to Unbundle Social Media - Looking Ahead (https://bit.ly/SMDem3).
This is really great. I think it's related to something I often think about as a person who enjoys reading history:
The history of how humans treat other humans is awful. We'd like to think we have long histories of valuing human life and morality derived from certain religions that reflects treating people in a positive way, but historically thats always been the anomaly, not the rule.
There is a strong human tendency towards selfishness and towards perceiving in and out-groups differently and usually treating the outgroups like they're not really human. People even naturally identify outgroups and outliers no matter how homogenized the group is: they start with obvious stuff like language and ethnicity, but if the group is homogeneous in those ways they will move on to gender and sexual preference, and if those are homogeneous they'll move on to something else. They will always identify the least similar member or members of a group and then often abuse or ostracize those parties.
Some people would say this is a deeply pessimistic view of human nature, but it's also true it's mostly improved over time. Where now we provide outgroups with worse schooling or wages, historically they were enslaved or killed. Human progress is real, but human nature is powerful and it doesn't pull in that direction until people perceive the progress as personally (and close ingroup, ie family community ethnicity etc) advantageous.
Human capacity for true selflessness is very low. Those who display it are often flush in basic resources and doing so for the advantages of status or even just the advantage of feeling good about themselves.
Facebook, by providing such an unfettered way for people who appeal to our worse angels to reach enormous numbers of people, empowers bad actors in a way that is basically unpreventable.
I agree with Amy Letter, below. I quit Facebook and it is the best thing I ever did for my mental health! I think the problem for many people is that they are socially isolated IRL and trying to find meaning on social media and it is destroying them and us. Maybe an indirect solution is trying to find local ways to improve social cohesion in communities to get people out of their toxic social media bubbles.
"I don’t believe that Facebook has such power that a few small algorithm tweaks will change human behavior like waving a wand." this sentence made me stop and think. Intuitively I agree. but how do we know this, as we are dealing with communication's at unprecedented scale and intensity - what if they can indeed reshape behavior? what if all the viral metaphors are correct hunches? Also, maybe there's a version of the Pascal's wager hiding here - we need to assume that this might be the case, but we lose too much ignoring this possibility.
The social media problem has so many facets that it is hard to cover all of its pitfalls.
First issue is: how does humanity deal with the connectivity that social media & the Internet have enabled? I wonder if some of the pre-internet social constructs can be translated into social media technologies. These constructs have developed over decades or longer so there must be some value to them. I believe a start would be to implement "networks of trust". Instead of seeing posts from all but anonymous people, can we have an algorithm to filter and select based on the people or entities that we chose to trust? For example, I'm have a neighborhood mailing list and I trust the people on that list to give good recommendations on restaurants and plumbers but am not interested in their politcal opinion. For news sources, I want to trust newssources recommended by thought leaders I follow (or thought leaders they follow). For investment advice, I may want to follow another set of influencers. Not only may this help me selecting stuff I do want to see, it may also help blocking stuff that I would not want to see, without me having to block that content specifically. If multiple people in my network of trust have determined that someone is trolling, then that content could be filtered out before I ever see it. If in my neighborhood somebody is a constant source of unsubstantiated mis-information and multiple people have flagged that person then I don't even have to see their posts or reactions on them.
Second, we can't have a few of these enormous companies have such a huge influence. We need to break the network effect that causes these companies to become monopolies in their specific service offering. To start a new social media service is extremely expensive, requires investors who require a high return on investment, which requires maximizing engagement to push as many ads as you can to the people that use your platform. We need to make it easier for new social media services to be developed and acquire a user base. Improve privacy laws and their enforcement so that you don't feel so hesitant to share your data with a new service and we should require platforms to offer data migration from one service to another. Some are calling for interoperability between social media services but that typically does not lead to experiences that are valued by the people that use them.
This might be a bit trite, but substitute FB for 'roads' or 'painkillers' or 'alcohol' or 'processed foods'. All useful when used right & terrible when not. I think you're right with the dead end observation.
It seems to me that impulse control, addiction & general lostness is the problem and FB just surfaces it. I speak as a former Twitter botherer whose mental health improved dramatically by quitting all that endless grazing & snippy chit chat.
The problems are not going to decrease until governments in the west face the inherent conflict of interest. Election campaigns are largely run on these platforms. So where is the motivation going to come from for appropriate oversight?
Good stuff. But what about Facebook's algorithm tweak around the 2020 election that briefly boosted news with higher “news ecosystem quality” scores? That couldn't hurt, could it? https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/technology/facebook-reverses-postelection-algorithm-changes-that-boosted-news-from-authoritative-sources.html
I've been casting around without any actual expertise for some kind "systems approach" to our current conundrums as a global human society. The words "tweak" and "nudge" also occur, but in terms of the proverbial and mysterious butterfly wing-beat rather than in terms of a line of code in an algorithm. Some initial premises about systems:
1. No human, including Zuckerberg or any CEO, has the ability or power to "fix" a system.
2. Systems have their own rules, which we can't admit to or understand because of this illusion of control.
3. Nevertheless, the secret rules of systems sometimes evolve from human-directed control at their birth (survival, profit, productivity, Zuckerberg's sophomoric brain at Harvard)
4. The world's systems interact with each other, so we're really dealing with immense combined systems.
5. Human societies and cultures are also systems. The attitudes and vulnerability of teenage girls are to a great extent biologically, culturally and genetically determined. Likewise our innate family and social affinities, which underlie the sociological traits that inspire cults and conspiracies.
It's tempting to throw A.I. at understanding our massive systems, but the next terrifying step would undoubtedly be to implement A.I. "solutions", which could only add a fatal level of opaque complexity to the whole megillah.
Charlie's approach, "out of reach" as it is, is possibly the lodestar we need: the systems need to be smaller and more local: "Every day, I’m a little more confident that we’re not supposed to be connected at this kind of scale and with this intensity. The fixes ... feel out of reach"
Gaia has a way of re-balancing ecological systems and reducing upstart species back to more manageable populations, but in the meantime we might as well see what we can do.
Facebook will always be bad because its leadership is rotten. You're probably right that the platform itself isn't good, but it's undeniable that the dead eyed skin suit leadership is a big cause of our suffering.
Very accurate analysis - thank you! I think you've hit the nail on the head right here:
>Facebook, at its current scale and in its current design, is not really compatible with humanity.
The way people communicate is so much more than words-on-a-page (or on a screen), but Facebook leaves all of that out. I'm reminded of a passage from Emily Post's etiquette book (sorry I don't have it with me or I'd quote verbatim) where she says that the written word doesn't have nearly the same ability as the spoken word to convey emotional tone, hence jokes get interpreted as microaggression, etc. People need the whole experience of person-to-person communication, with body language and all the rest; without that, you're right, the vigilance necessary is almost too much to handle.