Your thoughts on Facebook were thought provoking, but I think you simplify what Facebook is. Facebook’s vision of ’Social’ certainly includes Real Life friends and family. But it also extends to casual acquaintances, and most importantly, communities of common interest. So I, for example, can join a group that is just for one of my kids sports clubs, or my wife can join a local mom’s group, or I can reconnect with people scattered all over the world, or a national forum for discussing topics within a specific denominational, theological, or political interest (nauseatingly, these sometimes overlap). However, this same self-identification and self-selection enables the long tail of horrifying human interests to connect. Essentially Facebook is a platform that lowers to almost zero the cost of finding others of like mind and without real, live, vulnerable content moderators we won’t know if those like minds are seeking library book recommendations, local gardening tips or snuff videos. And the inseparable from the ability to find communities of self interest is the effect of *normalizing* them.
Say I have a predilection towards something that only 1 in 100,000 people enjoy (whether for good or for ill). If I live in a city of 500,000 people, without Facebook, absent renting a billboard or passing out flyers, the chance of me meeting one of the 5 people sharing my interest is vanishingly small. If it is a transgressive or anti-social interest, the risk of my even attempting to do so is very high. In a Facebook world where over a billion people use a least some English, that population balloons to 10,000 people—and locating them is a keystroke away. Facebook inevitably provides never before possible validation and approval to the most extreme and marginal human impulses. The only way to stop that is to prevent non-geographic communities of like minds to form, and without that ability, the platform dies.
In the scenario I mused about, virality would contained precisely by denying people the opportunity to make their networks “public.” So private groups could still plausibly be formed, allowing deviance to attain a kind of limited normalization—but they would remain private, which would mean the effects of the normalization would be limited. And the unimpeded ‘sharing’ that is the source of virality would be considerably constrained: yes, people could still add new friends (and would receive requests) in a crisis. But if you’re having to confirm each friend as their added, things wouldn’t spread as far or as fast. Yes, that might have slowed the platform’s growth curve. But it would have preserved its use long-term, as a platform—or at least that’s my argument.
But would it mean that something like the New Zealand shooting being displayed widely would never happen? No, clearly not: that sort of thing would still get through. But note the comparison that we’re talking about: Facebook is sucking the lives from thousands of human censors, and those horrendous videos are still getting through. So clearly, the current approach isn’t working much better than the one I described.
But here’s my totally contrarian, almost-certainly horrendous, not-fit-for-the-public question: are we totally, undeniably sure that allowing those kinds of videos into Facebook, as a matter of course, would be that bad for us? The swift, sharp pain of seeing an astonishingly traumatic video might make a lot more people alive to the kinds of horrors that many humans in many places and times (including today) have experienced as a semi-regular feature of their lives. One would have to take some agency, though, in resisting such a video—by blocking one’s real friend, calling them on the phone and complaining, and the like. Embedding such traumatic experiences inside of local networks surely would be much harder than our current system of allowing a few moderators to sacrifice their psyche’s to keep Facebook pure. But sloth in the face of evil is its own vice, even if it is duller than others, and that is just what Facebook in its current structure seems to require: none of us ever have to face up to the possibility of real evil in Facebook, either from within ourselves or our friends—we simply indulge in the comforting fantasy of undertaking “social change” through our likes and updates, while being “safe” from threats. Why should we think such an environment is good for us?
As another reader put it:
Assuming the world still exists in twenty years, I would be surprised if we didn’t regard our addiction to Facebook as a cultural embarrassment. It’s clearly a manipulative platform that rewires the mind and impoverishes real-world relationships and communities by offering a shadowy (but deliciously easy) simulacrum of society instead. It’s Plato’s cave with a scroll feed and Tide advertisements—and we all agree on this! Everyone knows it! No one comes away from an evening arguing with their dentist’s racist wife about Pizzagate and says, “Yes, this was time much better spent than reading a book or making eye contact with my children.”
Precisely right. It might be better if it did away with the simulacrum, and just gave us reality in all its unvarnished glory. We might all flee—but we’d be better for it.