Fixing Facebook May Be Impossible

In the realm of really long odds, let’s imagine that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg contacted me with this request: “Lauren, we’re in big trouble over here. I’ll do anything that you suggest to get Facebook back on the road of righteousness! Just name it and it’ll be done!”

Beyond the fact that this scenario is even less likely than Donald Trump voluntarily releasing his tax returns (though perhaps not by much!), I’m unsure that I’d have any practical ideas to help out Zuck.

The foundational problem is that any solutions with any significant chance of success would mean fundamentally changing the Facebook ecosystem in ways that would probably make it almost unrecognizable compared with their existing status quo.

Facebook is founded and structured almost entirely on the concept of straitjacketing users into narrow “walled gardens” of information, tailoring on an individual basis what they see in the most manipulative ways possible.

Perhaps even worse, Facebook permits posts to be “promoted” — that is, being visible in users’ feeds when they might not otherwise have appeared in those feeds — if you pay Facebook enough money.

Contrasting these fundamentals with Google’s social media operations is instructive.

For example, while you can buy ads to appear in conjunction with search results on Google (but never mixed in with the organic results themselves), there are no ads on Google+, nor is there any way to pay Google to promote Google+ posts.

Google’s major focus — their 20th birthday is this year — has always been on making the most information possible available in an organized way — the explicit goal of Google’s founding duo.

On the other hand, Facebook’s focus has always centered on tightly supervising and controlling the information that their victims — oops, sorry — users see. Given that Zuck originally founded Facebook as a means to avoid dating what he considered to be “ugly” women, we shouldn’t be at all surprised.

I’ve never had an active Facebook account (I do have a “stealth” account that I use so that I can survey Facebook pages, user interfaces, and similar aspects of the service that are only available to logged-in users — but I never post anything there.)

Yet I’ve never felt in any way deprived by not being an active Facebook user.

I frequently hear from people who tell me that they really hate Facebook, but that they keep using it because their friends or relatives don’t want to bother communicating with them any other way. That’s just … sad. 

But it’s not a valid excuse in the long run.

Perhaps even more to the point today, Facebook’s operating model makes it enormously vulnerable to ongoing manipulation by Russia and its affiliated entities (such as Donald Trump, his campaign, and his minions) toward undermining western democracies. 

Crucially though, this vulnerability is not the result of an accidental flaw in Facebook’s design. Rather, Facebook’s entire ecosystem is predicated on encouraging the manipulation of its users by third parties who posses the skills and financial resources to leverage Facebook’s model. 

These are not aberrations at Facebook — they are exactly how Facebook was designed to operate. As the saying goes: “Working as intended!”

Yes, I could probably make some useful suggestions to Zuck. Ways to vastly improve their abysmal privacy practices. Reminding them that lying to regulators is always a bad idea. And an array of other positive propositions. 

But the reality is that for Facebook to actually, seriously implement these would entail a wholesale restructuring of what Facebook does and what they currently represent as a firm — and it’s almost impossible to see that voluntarily happening.

So I really just don’t have any good news for Zuck along these lines.

And that’s the truth.


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