Today, we examine how Facebook, the king of the tech monopoly castle, has changed the world...both for better and for worse.
Even if you only use it as a means of remembering high school acquaintances' birthdays, Facebook changed your life and the world around you. That’s just a fact.
This company—one that has in so many ways revolutionized technology and media and brought the world closer together—has also eroded democracy, engendered a dangerous new world of social mores, and not cared much for any of the negative externalities associated with becoming the fastest company ever to reach a $1 trillion valuation.
Today, we examine how Facebook, the king of the tech monopoly castle, has changed the world...both for better and for worse.
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SARAH: “This is something I've heard from Facebook over and over, that the Internet is just a reflection of human nature and humans are flawed. Right. Right. And and that's actually not the best way to look at it with Facebook, because not only is Facebook reflecting human nature, they are accelerating the downsides of it.”
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Gooooood morning Menlo Park (and everywhere else you’re listening to this episode). This is Thinking Is Cool, the show designed to make your next conversation better than your last, even if you’re having it with someone who still posts regularly on Facebook dot com.
My name is Kinsey Grant, and I’m a journalist, failed micro-influencer, and the host of this show. Today, I’m adding undertaker to that list of descriptors. That’s because my task is, as they say, a massive undertaking. I’m aware of the heft of this episode—we’re talking global influence and power and accountability. The possibilities are endless, but in their infinity there is enormous responsibility. Fingers crossed I can handle it!!
I think I can, and that’s because I’ve spent all of season 1 of Thinking Is Cool building up to this moment—my very first season finale. After this episode, I’m taking a few weeks off to relax and rest and go into the witness protection program after Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg inevitably send their henchmen after me.
I’ll save the mushy gushy end-of-season stuff for my Tumblr—today, we’ve got a conversation to start. So let’s do it.
You know the drill if you’ve been here before: Thank you to our friends at HMBradley for making this show possible and empowering us to have the best summer ever. Now...nothing is off limits. Everything is on the table. Take it anywhere. And remember, thinking is cool. And so are you.
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The year was 2008. It was a steamy summer night in Tallahassee, Florida. My mom had made crab cakes for dinner, and I was still wearing volleyball clothes from earlier that day.
I was a few weeks away from starting 8th grade, and at that time in my life the most important thing I could imagine, the only pressing matter, was getting a profile on Facebook. It was more than graduating from Club Penguin—this would be my first sliver of an online presence, which felt like my first at-bat as a young adult.
I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me use the family computer to make a Facebook profile. Initially, they said I had to wait until I was in high school. Eventually, they gave in and let me make one that summer night in 2008 as long as they could log in whenever they wanted.
It was a bargain I couldn’t believe I’d made—finally, I could be like the cool kids. On Facebook. Sending bumper stickers to my friends and poking the boys I thought were cute. Writing the story of my life behind the words “Kinsey Grant is.” Counting the seemingly countless names that wrote on my wall every birthday. Accepting friend requests from high schoolers and posting pictures of trips to the mall with my best friend Hannah.
For me, as was the case for countless impressionable teens in the early and mid 2000s, having Facebook meant joining the conversation. I wanted so desperately to be a part of that.
If only I had known.
If only I had known that Facebook’s family of products would soon become a factory for my own insecurities, both physical and intellectual.
If only I had known that Facebook would come to so devastatingly erode the democratic process in the country I call home.
If only I had known that Facebook would blur the lines between fact and fiction so drastically that, even today, they’re hard to identify.
If only I had known.
What happened? What happened to the idea that joining Facebook meant joining an online world where boundaries didn’t exist and upside potential was endless? How did I go from that 14-year-old so desperate to participate in the online conversation to the person I am today, 26 years old and desperately trying to maintain some semblance of sanity in a world dominated by one singular lizard man, Mark Zuckerberg? Who did this, and can it be undone?
In the years since its founding, Facebook has become an almost biblical force. It determines what we see, what we do, how we do it...often in ways beyond our own recognition. There are 7 billion people on this planet, and over 3 billion of them are on Facebook.
My bet is that, among those 3 billion, I’m not alone in my outrage at the ways Facebook has denigrated all that we once held dear—free and fair press, reliable election processes, friendships and communities, even—but also...kind of made our lives easier.
There’s no denying that Facebook ushered us all into a new era of communication and community building and in doing so redefined business success. This is the online world we were promised, for better or worse. Facebook has, in a lot of ways, made it happen.
But here’s what I want to think about today: at what cost? At what cost has Facebook established American tech dominance? At what cost has Facebook essentially created the blueprint for the entire digital marketing industry? At what cost has Facebook connected seemingly disparate parts of the world?
Is Facebook really all that bad?
Today, we dare to ask that question. I usually shy away from making sweeping declarations. I’m an avid fan of the words “that’s just what I think.” But today, I’m making a sweeping declaration:
Facebook is unequivocally the most important American company for anyone to understand. Its impacts are felt around the world, while its strategy is decided by a select few. If there is any company to hold accountable, it’s Facebook.
Now, I want to clarify a couple of things before we get to holding it accountable:
And finally? Despite my very obvious disdain for Facebook and its leader Mark Zuckerberg over the last few minutes and, let’s be honest, the last season of this show, I’m not asking you to decide whether Facebook is a good or bad company.
What I am asking is this: consider power—the ways Facebook has accumulated it, abused it, and embraced it, and the ways we can wrestle it back when needed.
SARAH: “This is this is Facebook good or bad? Is Instagram good or bad? This is the question that I am asked over and over and over and my career. And I think where I've landed when I'm starting to to address that question is, is is Facebook using its power the right way? And what is Facebook's power? What is something that that Facebook is controlling about our lives or manipulating about our lives? And are they doing that in a positive manner or a negative manner?”
That was Sarah Frier, a brilliant reporter covering Big Tech for Bloomberg and the author of NO FILTER: The Inside Story of Instagram.
Sarah’s point is important to make early and often—questioning the most influential businesses of the modern age isn’t just about questioning their models and their morals. It’s about questioning their power—and how they got it.
So get ready. We’re about to have some fun doing just that. [make noise]
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If you’re like me, you count The Social Network as a comfort movie and you can quote the entire “SORRY MY PRADA’S AT THE CLEANERS” scene verbatim. If you’re not, a little background is important—understanding the Facebook of today requires understanding the Facebook of yesteryear.
Here’s the short history in a few sentences:
That short history has, unsurprisingly, made for a very profitable business, a business some might fairly call one of the world’s smartest.
I’m borrowing from one of my favorite newsletter writers, Packy McCormick of Not Boring, to help fill in the gaps on the business stuff, but here’s the main gist: By aggregating customer attention and data through those four main properties—Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Facebook sells inventory to advertisers happy to shell out money in exchange for reach to the right people with personalized ads.
And it works.
But like grandma always said, making money doesn’t always mean doing good. So today, we’re exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly of Facebook in an effort to speak truth to power. Let’s start with the good.
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I’m handing the mic over to another brilliant writer and journalist, Casey Newton. He writes Platformer, a publication about big tech and democracy. And he’s just really interesting to talk to. Here’s what he said when I asked him about what Facebook brings to this giant, 7-billion person metaphorical table.
CASEY: “I think we just start with the good, which is an unusual place to start. When we talk about Facebook, you might think about the value of providing free communication services to people who don't already have that. There are countries where people have access to Facebook and that is their primary experience of the Internet and that might let them run a small business on the Internet. It may not connect with their neighbors in certain ways. It may let them talk with family members who live in another country for free, you know, where they wouldn't be able to afford, you know, maybe another alternative.”
As of a few years back, 72% of Facebook’s users lived outside of the West. For those of us inside of the West, it can be hard to fully comprehend how lucky we are to have reliable internet access—there are about 3 billion people in the world who do not, and they live mostly in the global South.
It’s more than just empowering people to share photos and stalk their exes. It’s about Facebook’s family of products serving as the engine for online communication.
Take WhatsApp for example. Worldwide, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging service in over 100 countries. It has over 2.5 billion active users and is one of the few apps to be downloaded over five billion times.
I want you to close your eyes and think for a minute about what your life might look like without digital communication.
If you couldn’t text, message, DM...who would you have to talk to? It’s a harsh imagined reality, but it’s not that far out. This was reality just a few decades back, before Facebook and its cohort of world-connecting tools burst onto the scene.
It’s crazy that we can talk to whomever we want whenever we want wherever we are. Let’s not forget that, despite my already...aggressive opening.
Over the last year especially, we’ve seen how irreplaceable digital communication tools are in our lives. If we can’t speak face to face, having reliable tools like WhatsApp and Messenger can mean the difference between feeling connected and feeling adrift. Facebook has played a major role in ensuring that people across the globe don’t feel adrift.
And in doing so, Facebook has served as a monumentally important tool in engineering grassroots movements that have come to define entire generations. I mean, imagine if Facebook existed for Woodstock? Or the Cold War?
Here’s Casey again.
CASEY: “When you look at some of the positive social movements that we've seen over the past couple of years, black lives matter to me and want me to in other words, what kind of boost and amplification it gives those social networks, including, you know, obviously this country has a really long history of racial injustice. What was it about, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 that it helped it really get more attention than it ever had or had in place and time? I think social networks, the trying to play a role in that way, like when you take away all the gatekeepers and you can let everyone in America speak about what they're what's on their mind, you're going to get different answers to that question than you would have. It's just kind of the usual suspects running like the nightly network news broadcasts.”
For better or worse, Facebook gives everyone who wants one a voice. This is an example of “for the better.”
Vox wrote this of Facebook on the eve of its 15th birthday: “It’s a source of news and entertainment. It’s a place to launch your business, and a place to check that your loved ones are safe in times of crisis. Most importantly, Facebook has made the world smaller, connecting people with friends and family in ways that weren’t possible before.”
But that paragraph? It was followed, of course, by this one: “But Facebook has had problems, too, and many of them serious. Facebook has changed the notion of privacy. It’s changed the way media businesses operate. It’s provided a platform for bullies and racists and liars. It has disrupted democratic systems and facilitated a global disinformation crisis.”
That’s the thing about Facebook—every time you think it might come out on top as one of the good guys, you remember that it’s actually not one of the good guys at all. It’s time to perform the ritualistic rite that is deconstructing Facebook’s negative impacts on society writ large. Let’s go.
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Let’s do a little word association. When I say “Facebook is bad,” what’s the first word that pops into your head?
My bet is that it was some variation of this string of words: “Allowing for foreign and domestic interference in the 2016 United States presidential election, one of the most contentious this country has ever seen.”
It’s hard to start anywhere but disrupting democracy when you’re accounting for Facebook’s transgressions, so let’s start there.
Many people have dedicated entire careers to encapsulating this idea, so forgive me for leaving some details out as I try to communicate it in one sentence, but here we go: Facebook does not amplify all voices equally, but rather amplifies the most combative and pugnacious voices most in an effort to play on our basic human quality of being drawn to controversy.
It’s no longer a question of free speech. This is not the digital town square. This is an information superhighway optimized for mayhem.
It’s one thing to engage in a little inflammation here and there—who among us hasn’t. But my decision to start this season off with an episode about the porn industry is remarkably different from Facebook’s decision to create algorithms that promote dissent for one very important reason: scale.
Having all those billions of users I mentioned before means having an insane amount of responsibility. Responsibility isn’t something Facebook has traditionally handled well.
And when you pair that childlike shirking of responsibility with the realistic circumstances of a democracy that’s been on the brink for about a decade now...the results can be catastrophic.
Kevin Roose wrote this in the NYT: “Pro-Trump political influencers have spent years building a well-oiled media machine that swarms around every major news story, creating a torrent of viral commentary that reliably drowns out both the mainstream media and the liberal opposition. The result is a kind of parallel media universe that left-of-center Facebook users may never encounter, but that has been stunningly effective in shaping its own version of reality. Inside the right-wing Facebook bubble, President Trump’s response to Covid-19 has been strong and effective, Joe Biden is barely capable of forming sentences, and Black Lives Matter is a dangerous group of violent looters.”
Most of us know that this version of reality is not, well, reality. And while Kevin and I point to the GOP’s most ardent in this example, something similar can be found for any faction of this fractured country. As of 2019, 70% of American adults used Facebook, and 43% of Americans got news on the platform, according to the Pew Research Center.
Jonathan Haidt, who’s a social psychologist and celebrated author, has been vocal about the ways Facebook is architecting a black hole in our society. As Haidt has put it, democracies as big as this one in the United States are unstable almost by definition, making the need for so-called “centripetal” forces—things like language, values, and trust that bring us toward the center together—urgent.
Facebook, as Haidt puts it, is a centrifugal force. It brings small groups of people together to fight with other groups within their own country. This, as he told Vox a few years ago, results in a people “driven mad and propelled into battle by an eternal mudslide of outrage-inducing viral videos and conspiracy theories.”
It’s not just happening here. Here’s Casey again.
CASEY: “You want to look at how politics has changed since we moved into this world where there are no gatekeepers. It sure seems to me like there are a lot of right wing authoritarian populists around the world, you know, whether it was Trump in America, Vocero in Brazil to Turkey, to the Philippines, you have a lot of them were very effective at using Facebook to rile up their followers. They’ve been using very racist discourse and they were able to ride those into office. And then once they got into office, they were able to chip away at the foundations of democracy. And so, you know, I don't think the social networks are uniquely culpable for the rise of China, the authoritarian, but to the extent that the world feels more polarized now. It definitely happened alongside the rise of Facebook. And I think at a minimum, you can't really argue that Facebook's existence has brought us together as a people, but it doesn't feel like we have a greater understanding of one another. It doesn't feel like our bubbles have been popped.”
It’s worth noting that, as Casey said, Facebook isn’t uniquely culpable for all the bad things that have happened in our world since 2004. But it has played a role.
I can’t point specifically to Facebook or Instagram and say, “This is what gave me body dysmorphia.” But I can tell you that Instagram hasn’t done much of anything to help.
There are things about my literal, physical appearance that I have changed because algorithms have shown me an endless scroll of unrealistic expectations for women since the very first day I logged on. I’ve changed my hair, I’ve tried to change my body...and at particularly vulnerable times after scrolling through my Explore Page on Instagram, I’ve hated myself for looking the way I look.
An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017 found the suicide rate among teenage girls ages 15 to 19 hit a 40-year high in 2015. Between 2007 and 2015, the rates doubled among girls and rose by more than 30% among teen boys.
It’s not Facebook’s fault, but that doesn’t make Facebook innocent. Opening the world to boundless communication with everyone all of the time is dangerous. And if you ask me, Facebook has failed to recognize its responsibility. Young people are coming to the corner of the internet Mark Zuckerberg carved out and leaving not just sadder but also in grave danger. And it would appear Mark Zuckerberg, who became a billionaire by preying on our insecurities, could not care less.
Facebook is profiting from our shared personal crises over how pretty we are, how thin we are, how fit we are, how smart we are.
Because, as the saying goes, if something is free? You’re the product. In the case of Facebook, you and your data are currency in a market beyond your control. Your online habits are being tracked—that’s not new information, and honestly it doesn’t scare me that much. It’s the reality of being an internet user.
But what does give me pause is this, put precisely by Sarah:
SARAH: “So Facebook has this this incredibly large user base. More than three billion people around the world use a Facebook product every month. It may even be three point four billion at this point. And what is the priority of Facebook when you're using that product to get you to use it more? And so just there you see their their intentions with their users is they want to increase your attention to the product. They want to make it more essential to their lives.”
They don’t want to make it better. They don’t want to make it fairer. They want to make it more irreplaceable. Facebook and the torrent of social media companies it ushered into the modern world are engineered to be addicting.
SARAH: “This is something I've heard from Facebook over and over, that the Internet is just a reflection of human nature and humans are flawed. Right. Right. And and that's actually not the best way to look at it with Facebook, because not only is Facebook reflecting human nature, they are accelerating the downsides of it. They are finding what makes it, you know, really tantalizing to click on something really exciting, to click back into your profile and all of those those things that we as humans gravitate towards. It's kind of like saying, you know, if the people really wanted sugar, let them eat sugar. If the people really want to smoke cigarets, let them smoke cigarettes, give them as many cigarettes as they want. If they become addicted to it, give them more. It's and it's not bad because they want it and they're coming back for more.”
If ever there was a time to feel like a lab rat, it’s now. Mark Zuckerberg and his team of mad scientists are actively working to get you addicted, then pointing the finger back at you when you say that addiction has harmed you.
SARAH: “Mark Zuckerberg, when it first came out that Facebook and its spreading of false news may have led it to the election outcome in 2016, the president Trump's election, he was like, it's crazy to think that just by by serving people certain kinds of stories on Facebook that that would change who they vote for like that. We give people more credit that people are are thoughtful. People are making the decision on to vote themselves like we are telling them who to vote for. We're just showing them what they want to read. And and I think that that's that's true. But also, we need to consider the fact that these products are passive tools. When you go to Facebook, you are not going with an intention of figuring out who to vote for. You are going with an intention of spending your time entertaining, right? Yeah. You want to go and just absorb whatever they want you to absorb because you know that it's been totally personalized and that you'll see updates from events and groups that you follow. You'll see people show up on your Instagram, who you who you tend to like, and and you will catch up with friends and family and maybe maybe weaved into that you'll see some news update or some thought provoking piece that you click on. And but that wasn't the reason that you went there. So so I think if you you think that people are thinking critically when they're using Facebook, it's simply not the way the product is designed.”
That failure of content moderation? That failure to amplify the truest voices instead of just the loudest? Those were decisions. Decisions made by Facebook and its leadership.
Those decisions can be big and small. I mean, I could spend this whole episode trying to unravel the decision to make “poking” a thing on Facebook in the early 2010s.
It’s also worth pointing out that, in some ways, Facebook’s biggest transgressions feel almost inevitable. With the advent of the internet, we were bound to take community and discourse online. And with that migration, negative externalities were a guarantee. That’s why encompassing issues like content moderation and fact-checking aren’t unique to Facebook.
But there is an important distinction to make, and I’m going to let Casey make it.
CASEY: “I've written before that I think that there are Internet platforms and there are platform problems such as the Internet problem is that not this post online revolution. You know, if you set up a website and you let people post, eventually sources will show up and they probably won't even take that. They don't seem to be universal across the entire Internet, just like Facebook has got problems. But it is not necessarily a Facebook problem in the sense that, you know, any website where users can post will have it. But then there are what I call software problems. And I think platform problems most often turn out to be questions of amplification, which is a platform recommend. What did it show in search results? How did they algorithm to become more engaging and get you to click more on? That's where there are a lot of really specific problems that we know that this was an immensely helpful to me. It is absolutely brilliant. You know, it was really helpful to the QAnon really and that's really bad. And that is something they should have to answer for.”
In the world of Facebook, answering for the wrongs you’ve perpetrated isn’t really a priority. For all intents and purposes, the measure of success for Mark Zuckerberg isn’t positive impact. It’s impact. Period.
SARAH: “One of the biggest flaws, I think, and Zuckerberg and thinking about about how to build products is that when you see those metrics tick up, if you're Facebook and you're running part of the product, whether that's WhatsApp or Instagram or events or groups, and you see the amount of users go up or the amount of time they spend on it, the floor is thinking, wow, our product became more valuable and good for those people is not the same thing. Right? If people are using the product more, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's adding more value to their lives. Hmm. And and so it could actually be detracting value from their lives if it's making them angry or making them more conspiratorial, bringing them down a kuhnen rabbit hole or Antibalas or rabbit hole or or even just on Instagram, making them feel anxious and alone and like everyone else is having fun except for them. And they're not beautiful enough. And and on WhatsApp getting getting into some of these really controversial groups where they're telling you about it. In India, there have been some lynchings that have gone down because of what people learned in WhatsApp groups. That was just false. Right. And so I think that that if you are standing in Facebook headquarters or working from home, as the case may be these days and seeing the numbers tick up and putting yourself on the back, you're not thinking necessarily what is what does this really mean? Like what is the individual user experience? And are these people are these people's lives enriched by the time they're spending on these platforms.”
That measure of success—and success is by many definitions how we’d categorize Facebook’s story at least from a business perspective—has informed our own metrics. How many times have you hoped to break a record for likes on an Instagram post? How many times have you ached to see the number of followers or shares on your profile increase? How many times have you rage-consumed content on social media? Why is it that Facebook’s apps on our phones—not our loved ones—are the first things we look at when we wake up and the last things we look at before we go to sleep?
It’s by design. By Mark Zuckerberg’s design.
SARAH: “But they do have this negative externality of of intentionally getting us to do. That which is maybe catering to the worst impulses of humanity, we want to read that which shocks us, we want to click on that, which is scandalous. We want to we want to have discussions about things that make us angry and we want to benchmark ourselves against other people. We have this this need to get more likes on our latest photo and boost our follower count, because that's what Facebook tells us success looks like.”
Adrienne LaFrance wrote this in The Atlantic: “Facebook has conducted social-contagion experiments on its users without telling them. Facebook has acted as a force for digital colonialism, attempting to become the de facto (and only) experience of the internet for people all over the world. Facebook has bragged about its ability to influence the outcome of elections. Unlawful militant groups use Facebook to organize. Government officials use Facebook to mislead their own citizens, and to tamper with elections. Military officials have exploited Facebook’s complacency to carry out genocide. Facebook inadvertently auto-generated jaunty recruitment videos for the Islamic State featuring anti-Semitic messages and burning American flags.”
Those were all decisions.
But whose fault is it that they were made in the first place? Let’s figure it out after a short break to hear from our pals at HMBradley...who actually reward you for good behavior, unlike one app I know.
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Thank you as always, HMB.
Once upon a time, a very young Mark Zuckerberg was interviewed for a documentary about Facebook—but it was the version of Facebook that came well before what it is today.
He said this: “The goal wasn’t to create an online community, but a mirror of what existed in real life.” In a lot of ways, Mark Zuckerberg succeeded. Facebook is a cesspool because we empowered it to become one.
Sarah Frier recently wrote this in the NYT as part of her review of the recently published Facebook exposé, An Ugly Truth: “None of the revelations so far of Facebook’s foibles have harmed the company financially; in June, it became the fastest-ever company to reach $1 trillion in market value, validating Zuckerberg’s grow-at-all-costs strategy. We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”
Humans are flawed—this we know. But perhaps our biggest modern flaw is the refusal to give convenient things up even when we know they’re bad for us. Here’s more of my conversation with Sarah.
SARAH: “When they think about their purpose, they think that connecting the world is something that is de facto good, that bringing people together on the Internet is something that could promote empathy is something that could increase economic opportunity, that if you have people able to reach out to someone in a different country of a different race, of a different background, that maybe it would, you know, as long as you get there, however you get there, it's justified. But in reality, it is a dramatic oversimplification of how it has ended up working out, because once you start personalizing those networks and suggesting to people who they should be connected with, you introduce a lot of things that change people's information diets, change their minds, change their real world behavior. And and I think Facebook is getting bigger and bigger and bigger has so so far not grappled with that effect that they have on human behavior. Mm hmm.”
KINSEY: “OK, do you think they they will.”
SARAH: “I think that they won't in any measurable way unless they find a way to to. How should I say this? I think that when we have seen them take steps towards fixing some of their societal downsides, it's only after immediate attention, public official attention, users change their behavior. They're not going to do anything that they don't have to do, especially not anything that would affect their growth trajectory.”
KINSEY: “OK, so it's not necessarily just platform responsibility. It's also users holding said platform accountable.”
SARAH: “Yes. And it's like they said, they tell you in the economy that you vote with your dollar on Facebook, we vote with our time.”
If there’s anything we’ve learned this season of Thinking Is Cool, it’s that voting—whether it’s with your time or your money or your ballot—matters. So here’s an idea of how we do it.
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It’s time to dethrone the King of the Wifi-enabled castle. HEY HEY, HO HO, ZUCKERBERG HAS GOT TO GO.
I’ve spent the last several minutes explaining that many of the biggest problems Facebook has introduced to the internet and to the world are problems that could be algorithmically solved. It would cost Facebook money to solve them, yes. But Facebook can flip a switch and decide not to cater to our worst impulses. Responsibility is within reach at Facebook HQ.
Imagine what the world would be like if Facebook became a company capable of evolving with human nature to truly make good on its mission to bring us together. It would create immense economic and personal and social growth.
To me, that cannot happen under Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership.
He has routinely, almost systematically, foisted blame onto other people for problems he created. He famously refused to serve as the arbiter of truth, despite creating the engine behind mistruth. He’s failed to meet the creative expectations of a modern visionary, instead lifting ideas from smaller tech companies to deploy on his own platforms. I mean, do you use the Facebook app anymore?
Consider this from The Atlantic: “Looking back, it can seem like Zuckerberg’s path to world domination was inevitable. There’s the computerized version of Risk he coded in ninth grade; his long-standing interest in the Roman empire; his obsession with information flow and human psychology. There’s the story of his first bona fide internet scandal, when he hacked into Harvard’s directory and lifted photos of students without their permission to make the hot-or-not-style website FaceMash. (“Child’s play” was how Zuckerberg later described the ease with which he broke into Harvard’s system.) There’s the disconnect between his lip service to privacy and the way Facebook actually works. (Here’s Zuckerberg in a private chat with a friend years ago, on the mountain of data he’d obtained from Facebook’s early users: “I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses … People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks.”)
According to that piece, at various points over the years, he’s listed the following interests in his Facebook profile: Eliminating Desire, Minimalism, Making Things, Breaking Things, Revolutions, Openness, Exponential Growth, Social Dynamics, Domination.
SARAH: “This is what Zuckerberg, once he wants to build the single biggest network of humans and his legacy will be what happens when you when you focus on growing without focusing on attending to the people that you have asked to join you. It's like it's like an empire that adds more and more and more citizenry to its ranks and has no idea what those people are doing as long as they, you know, pay their dues by logging in. The applause happy, right?”
Mark Zuckerberg, it’s time to hand over the reins. Facebook is too powerful, too all consuming to be completely undone. And the good it’s introduced to the world—the good I told you about earlier in this episode—shouldn’t be erased.
But Facebook should be held to account. Vive la révolution.
And I know what you’re going to say, especially if you starting listening to Thinking Is Cool because you used to follow my business journalism work. What about the stock price?
It’s true—a leadership scramble at Facebook’s top ranks would likely result in a short-term devaluation. Respectfully, I say I don’t care. And in the long-term, a change in leadership would probably be beneficial—Facebook can’t survive on ad revenue alone, and Zuckerberg’s leadership has made a considerable number of Facebook’s almost 60,000 employees ashamed to admit their place of work. That’s not how you innovate.
Earlier in this episode, I referenced Not Boring writer Packy McCormick’s work. Packy also wrote this: “So many of the things that we view as negative about Facebook are positives if you put on your investor hat and hold your nose.”
Right now, I want you to go find your investor hat. Pick it up. Take a good long look at it. And burn it. Destroy it.
Have we really devolved to the point at which we have to leave our standards at the door in order to invest successfully? Respectfully, and I mean that—I truly admire Packy’s work—I call bullshit.
Well, I want to call bullshit. I wrote that sentence before remembering that I invested $100 in Facebook stock back when I first opened a brokerage account. And I was going to write about selling that stock because we have to put our money where our mouth is. And I was going to open my Public app and sell my Facebook stock. And I was going to write about how good I felt doing that.
But then I saw how much money I’ve made on that small investment. It’s really hard to let go of something that appears to only go up and to the right. I know it is because I’m going through it right now as I write this episode.
But it’s made me realize something: It’s a lot harder to demand change from the outside than it is the inside. I could sell my Facebook stock. I could delete my Instagram and never again use it to promote this show. I could go off the grid.
I could, but it would only impact me. Mark Zuckerberg probably won’t undo the wrongs he’s perpetrated against the world because of my individual actions.
But in this season of Thinking Is Cool, we’ve spent hours considering the ways that collective, cooperative action can, in fact, affect positive change. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is. It’s time to demand change at Facebook, the most important company of the modern era.
It can be daunting, certainly. To imagine the world without this version of Facebook is akin to imagining the world without the internet at all. Billions of people use these Facebook tools—how do we go about ensuring that those tools are created justly? Even within the confines of this episode, I’ve been humbled by all the Facebook stories I didn’t have time to get to—Myanmar, all the Trump stuff, disputes with Apple, data privacy, potential antitrust regulation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It’s hard.
So what can we do?
Write to your senator and ask them to consider common sense legislation that minimizes the stranglehold over all of tech that Facebook has laid claim to for years now. Be the loudest voice on the internet—call for change publicly.
Reconsider your digital hygiene and the ways you use these platforms. Use them for good, not for throwing gas on the flames. Mind your corner of the internet, and call out bullshit when you see it. Keep in mind that these products are supposed to be made for you, not the other way around.
Remember the excitement of using apps like Facebook for the first time, and let that nostalgia power your efforts to create something that the 8th graders of the future beg their parents to let them use.
Hold leaders like Mark Zuckerberg more accountable. Hold them to higher expectations and higher standards.
Ask your friends and family questions. Questions like this: Are you addicted to social media? What role did Facebook play in your online coming of age? Who could do this job better than Mark Zuckerberg? What might the world look like without Facebook?
And most importantly, think about it and talk about it. Just doing that? It’s already making a measurable difference. Collective discourse solves problems. And this is just the beginning.
Remember, thinking is cool. And so are you. I’m Kinsey Grant, and I’ll see you for our next season in just a couple weeks.