Facebook co-f0under Chris Hughes, calling for a break up of Facebook in The New York Times opinion section:
The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people. Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them […]
If the government were to use this moment to resurrect an effective competition standard that takes a broader view of the full cost of “free” products, it could affect a whole host of industries. The alternative is bleak. If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.
In writing this piece, Hughes joins a litany of former Facebook execs who have come out against the company, including Dustin Muskovitz, Sean Parker, and Brian Acton (Casey Newton has a good rundown here).
In a striking coincidence, pretty much all of them rebuked Facebook after becoming immeasurably enriched by the company. So weird how they found the courage to voice their convictions not during their time there, but way afterwards, when they’d all become billionaires. (To be fair, Hughes acknowledges this and takes responsibility for it in his piece).
Putting that aside though, we should evaluate whether Hughes’ recommendations have merit on their own. And on that measure, his primary suggestions don’t really stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Ezra Klein breaks it down over at Vox:
This is the core contradiction of Hughes’s essay. Every time he names the decisions that competition led Facebook to make, he describes the platform’s moral devolution. But every time he imagines the alternatives that more competition would create, he muses about kinder, gentler platforms — platforms with fewer ads, more privacy, less attention hacking.
But look around. Twitter assessed the competition and went algorithmic, creating a space so toxic the company is now trying to understand how “healthy conversations” work. YouTube ran the numbers and built an algorithm that’s become a powerful force for radicalization. Instagram became attractive to Facebook precisely because it’s so good at being addictive. Tumblr turned out to be so reliant on porn that Pornhub is considering a bid to buy the flailing business. Pinterest, well, Pinterest seems okay. For now.
Perhaps more competition in the social media space would lead to better alternatives. But perhaps it would do what it’s done so far: lead to yet fiercer wars for our attention and data, which would incentivize yet more unethical modes of capturing it.
Klein’s piece nails it. Facebook is the way it is not because of the lack of competition but because of the competition. Regulation could probably help but letting a thousand social network flowers bloom is what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place.
A few more links from the week:
- In case you missed it: I made a video running down the troubling questions of Avengers: Endgame using nothing but stock footage. Check it out.
- Roisin Lanigan writes for The Atlantic about why people fake having cancer on the internet.
- Taylor Lorenz has been killing it in her recent coverage of internet trends and how they’re affecting the culture. Here’s her most recent piece on how the Instagram aesthetic is changing.
- For The New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds wrote about how even a little bit of exercise can go a long way.
- Speaking of exercise, here’s a meta-study about why exercise isn’t that helpful for losing weight. Some fascinating new ideas in here that I’d never heard of before.
- For Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore has written a great investigation about the state of the “faith-based film” genre.
- Here’s a fascinating oral history of Amazon Prime. With Prime being so dominant now (over 100 million subscribers, at last publicly-disclosed count), it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, launching it was seen as a “bet the company” type move.
- Caroline Haskins wrote for Motherboard about why AirPods are a tragedy.
- Rebecca Keegan got Dexter Fletcher to open up about the drama that went down with Bohemian Rhapsody.
- Brianna Wiest wrote about how to seem like you always have your shit together. A lot of good advice here for those interested in refining their public persona.
- In advance of Mother’s Day, Caitlin Gibson has written a beautiful piece about the passing of her mother, the birth of her child, and the intersection between those two events. Powerful stuff.