Tipping the Scale

So Zuckbot 3000 has gone before Congress to attempt to impersonate a human being, and after two days of testimony it’s hard to shake the impression that some kind of regulation is coming sooner or later, if nothing else to ape the EU’s new requirements. Good, and long overdue. I’m still trying to think of a good reason to hang onto my barely-used Facebook account other than the fact that it’s probably the only means of contacting people from high school or the NGS days. I went nuts locking it down back in 2011, and that looks like a good move in retrospect.

People are talking about paying for an ad-free version of Facebook, which I don’t see happening for one simple reason: that would impede growth. Free shit propagates much more quickly than paid versions, and attempting to pay for the use of a social network – whether it be app.net or micro.blog – isn’t a valuable option when everything depends on how big that Monthly Average Users delta is. This was at the heart of Facebook’s original sin – offering a walled garden in exchange for your real identity, and then tearing down the walls to monetize it at the first opportunity.

But then, part of the problem is just scale itself. Take Ireland, for instance, which was a lovely country that I would go back to in a heartbeat…and where there were only two towns bigger than Mountain View. Or the San Jose Giants, the Advanced-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, with their WPA-era park that seats a few thousand and discounts beer by half when the Beer Batter strikes out. Or any cozy alley dive bar anywhere.

Or consider representative democracy, where we have 435 Congresscritters in the House. (Never mind the Senate, the least representative body in the Western world, and I include the House of Lords in that metric.) At current population, every member of the House represents roughly 800,000 people. Up from 565,000 when I was younger, and the staff hasn’t grown to match. Full time staff for a Congressperson is 14 (up from 9) plus four part-timers. To update PJ O’Rourke, you’d think a company with 800,000 customers would have more than fifteen full time employees. And that 435 number was fixed at a time when the US population was just over 92 million, so every notional representative has quadrupled his or her area served.


The problem that most social media options use – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – is that eventually the stream is too big to keep up with, so they start using algorithmic methods to show you what you need to see instead of just giving you the firehose in order. Because of course the stream will be too big to keep up with, because you have to add everyone. It’s not just friends, it’s friends of friends, or sports teams, or beer brands, or things your friends choose to repost, or eventually just things your friends liked. And then they decide what you should see “in case you missed it”.

There was a time when there were horses for courses. Twitter was basically a blast group text. Instagram was a mobile photography solution designed to make the best of the shitty cameras on early smartphones. Facebook was a cleaner version of MySpace or Friendster, which themselves were basically blogging solutions with nothing but a profile page. And Twitter added faves and retweets, and Facebook added the News Feed, and Instagram got bought by Facebook and somehow managed to avoid some of the stupidest modifications while being repurposed into a part-time Snapchat ripoff, and we got to where we are now. Every couple of years someone tries to roll out Path, or Ello, or Diaspora, or Peach, or whatever that thing was last month that was basically a Russian-flavored Zack Snyder promo, but nothing ever takes. Because we’ve got Facebook and Twitter and Insta already, and nobody wants to move to another service when everybody’s already on one.

And the thing is, Facebook grasped this, and then went out and bought the next thing. Which is why they have Instagram and WhatsApp now. Any sane solution to getting Facebook under control would force them to divest those two apps – engineering, advertising, they don’t have to be sold off but they have to be firewalled as if they were. Ideally, though, the Facebook fix involves portability of data and the ability to federate it. The web wasn’t a single company’s product. Neither was email. They were a set of standards that could be implemented in interoperable fashion. I’ve ranted about this before, and now it seems more obvious than ever: you can’t let your data be dependent on a single company, whether it’s Facebook or Google or Hooli or whatever comes next. No regulations meant unlimited consolidation meant imperatives to drive growth meant base emotional manipulation meant “we accidentally the election.”

So maybe that’s the solution. The urgency to grow, the need to achieve scale at any cost, has driven most of the bad behavior at Facebook and elsewhere. Google might have become the dominant email provider, but it doesn’t stop you using Hotmail or Yahoo or iCloud or your ISP’s service or your brother-in-law’s secure IMAP server. Nothing prevents you popping up a website or a blog on any number of free services which anyone with a web browser or RSS reader is free to access, to syndicate into a feed. Microblogging options like Tumblr or Typepad Micro can be thrown into Feedbin or Feedly. There are ways to do this by separating publishing tools and reading tools and hosting service. We did it for years, if not decades. We can do it again. We should do it again.

Too big to fail? Facebook might be too big to let live.

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