2007 - 2022

Social Media v Democracy

Are you feeling a bit like Mercer, the boyfriend in Dave Eggers novel The Circle? In the book digital culture has developed to engulf and consume the world and Mercer is a refusenik rejecting the new conformity of perpetual sharing. He spends hours thinking of ways to “unsubscribe to mailing lists without hurting anyone’s feelings”. The digital binge leaves him “hollow and diminished”, and this “new neediness [that] pervades everything” is driving him crazy.

It seems that we might need to relocate Eggers dystopian novel from the fiction to the non-fiction shelves.

I didn’t know that when it launched in the UK Facebook was limited to Oxbridge and the LSE. As John Lanchester tell us in his deep review of three new books on social media giants You are the Product (The Attention Merchants: From the Daily Newspaper to Social Media, How Our Time and Attention Is Harvested and Sold by Tim Wu, BuyChaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine by Antonio García Martínez and Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon have Cornered Culture and What It Means for All of Us by Jonathan Taplin):

“The idea was that people wanted to look at what other people like them were doing, to see their social networks, to compare, to boast and show off, to give full rein to every moment of longing and envy, to keep their noses pressed against the sweet-shop window of others’ lives.”

The psychology of it makes sense. But the revelations about Facebooks size and reach is mesmerising:

“At the end of June, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had hit a new level: two billion monthly active users. That number, the company’s preferred ‘metric’ when measuring its own size, means two billion different people used Facebook in the preceding month. It is hard to grasp just how extraordinary that is. Bear in mind that thefacebook – its original name – was launched exclusively for Harvard students in 2004. No human enterprise, no new technology or utility or service, has ever been adopted so widely so quickly. The speed of uptake far exceeds that of the internet itself, let alone ancient technologies such as television or cinema or radio.

Also amazing: as Facebook has grown, its users’ reliance on it has also grown. The increase in numbers is not, as one might expect, accompanied by a lower level of engagement. More does not mean worse – or worse, at least, from Facebook’s point of view. On the contrary. In the far distant days of October 2012, when Facebook hit one billion users, 55 per cent of them were using it every day. At two billion, 66 per cent are. Its user base is growing at 18 per cent a year – which you’d have thought impossible for a business already so enormous. Facebook’s biggest rival for logged-in users is YouTube, owned by its deadly rival Alphabet (the company formerly known as Google), in second place with 1.5 billion monthly users. Three of the next four biggest apps, or services, or whatever one wants to call them, are WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, with 1.2 billion, 1.2 billion, and 700 million users respectively (the Chinese app WeChat is the other one, with 889 million). Those three entities have something in common: they are all owned by Facebook. No wonder the company is the fifth most valuable in the world, with a market capitalisation of $445 billion.

Zuckerberg’s news about Facebook’s size came with an announcement which may or may not prove to be significant. He said that the company was changing its ‘mission statement’, its version of the canting pieties beloved of corporate America. Facebook’s mission used to be ‘making the world more open and connected’. A non-Facebooker reading that is likely to ask: why? Connection is presented as an end in itself, an inherently and automatically good thing. Is it, though? Flaubert was sceptical about trains because he thought (in Julian Barnes’s paraphrase) that ‘the railway would merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid.’ You don’t have to be as misanthropic as Flaubert to wonder if something similar isn’t true about connecting people on Facebook. For instance, Facebook is generally agreed to have played a big, perhaps even a crucial, role in the election of Donald Trump. The benefit to humanity is not clear. This thought, or something like it, seems to have occurred to Zuckerberg, because the new mission statement spells out a reason for all this connectedness. It says that the new mission is to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’. Hmm.”

Memory Whole

Does anyone else feel as uncomfortable as I do when Facebook presents itself with your ‘Memories’?

An important facet of this new domination is looked at by Eli Burnstein who asks:

“When we remember everything, do we understand anything?”. See ‘Past Perfect’ in the Alpine Review.

Burnstein remarks that:

“The social network’s engineered nostalgia presents us with a frightful if far-fetched vision of the past — one controlled, not by a government, as Orwell foretold, but by a company.”

“Forced acts of remembrance aside, a more far-reaching problem lies at the core of our digital lives. As we capture every moment on our high-res cameras; as we type and text rather than speak with our friends; as we buy, and watch, and listen, and read online, we’re inadvertently committing a great percentage of our experience to the permanent record that (with an increasingly unignorable irony) we call the “cloud.” But as we digitally embalm every­thing we say and do, bringing more and more of the past along with us, we begin to lose something essential — namely, the future.”

In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff warns that technology’s preservation of the past has collapsed our sense of going anywhere new, trapping us in a permanent state of now.

“Fifteen minutes spent on Facebook, for example, mashes together our friendships from elementary school with new requests for future relationships. Everything we have lived, and everyone we have met, is compressed into a virtual now… We live all of our ages at once.”


Meanwhile the gathering clouds over Facebooks political influence are getting heavier.

The companies defence seems to be a pitiful loosely connected sequence of unconvincing get-outs. As Dylan Byers has it the Facebook timeline goes from:

“It didn’t happen – happened, but was small – ok, semi-big – ok, it reached 126 million, but no evidence it influenced them.”

See: “Facebook estimates 126 million people were served content from Russia-linked pages”

Amongst all the genius, all the money, all the huge growth, Facebook couldn’t tell a ruble from a dollar.

So, now what?

Maybe the Troll Farm revelations and the dark money sloshing around is a tipping point where the first stage of internet development will be seen to be over and ways of creating some transparency and accountability will be required.

The challenge is of course that such a need is quite rightly opposed by the libertarian streak of tech developers and internet freedom defenders who argue strongly and convincingly about creating any authority.

But the reality is that there is an authority, its a commercial authority and we are complicit in its power.

Jonathan Frantzen has suggested:

“With technoconsumerism,” he wrote, “a humanist rhetoric of ’empowerment’ and ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘connection’ and ‘democracy’ abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”

In Eggers novel the company demands transparency in all things; two of its many slogans are ‘SECRETS ARE LIES’ and ‘PRIVACY IS THEFT’ – neatly echoing Orwell and Proudhon.

Maybe the answer is control of the big companies, create the space for the power of open source and relearning how to use and not be used by the digital culture? Its clear the problem is not (just) technology but encompasses a deeper crisis of self, addiction and consumerism.

Anyway. Enough. I am going to go and lie down in a forest.



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Comments (5)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Facebook is not going to be uninvented. It is used by, as you report, 2 billion sentient and intelligent people.

    I think it implies similar arrogance to Flaubert’s (which you quote) to imply that these people are acting like controlled robots. While Facebook might well have been effective in the election of President Trump, It had been effectively used by the Obama campaigns. People are using it for a multitude of purposes and very many of these are creative and widely beneficial. People can keep in contact with friends and family, daily, no matter where they are on the globe. Contrast that with the emigrants from, say, South Uist in the 1920s most of whom would never again see or hear from friends and family.

    There are very few technologies which have not been misused. But, this is not a reason for banning them, even if such Cnutian delusion were attempted. It is right to warn about these. But, to condemn them because of the dangers is the ‘perfection fallacy’.

    Mr Zuckerberg is probably a genius and might have hubristic ambitions, but, inventors of technology or coiners of new concepts, having released them on the world are often quickly surpassed by them as the other geniuses who populate the world create new uses.

    1. I dont remember arguing that Facebook should be banned Alasdair?

      Nor did I argue that people were acting like controlled robots.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:


        Apologies. Slack phraseology. I had formed an impression that the drift (amongst a number of other things with which I agreed) was along the lines of the MSM fearmongering about social media. I was probably conflating some of their assertions with inferences I had drawn from your article.

    2. Concerned says:

      Zuckerberg a genius?. Surely he is an opportunist that got lucky.

      Facebook is merely an outdated communication platform that is to a certain extent treading water- very little in the way of genuine innovation is done at its HQ. The majority of people on my newsfeed that use it on a regular basis are the over 50’s. Very few under this age now use it as a sharing tool.

      The real social network to watch is Weixin (WeChat) which has close to one billion users and was only conceived in 2011. It is pretty much all encompassing in Asia. Users pay for services, book doctors appointments, order a taxi, pay for utilities and book time off work.

      The most worrying aspect is its heat map feature designed to track assemblies/congregations of citizens. How long before this technology is applied in the west?

  2. SleepingDog says:

    There are a number of important issues addressed in the article, but to unpack one, the issue of provenance has been addressed by the World Wide Web Consortium with a family of standards, described in this Overview:
    “Provenance is information about entities, activities, and people involved in producing a piece of data or thing, which can be used to form assessments about its quality, reliability or trustworthiness.”

    Technical standards are hardly reported on in mainstream media compared to technology companies (unless something goes wrong and there is a user security problem), but these are the architectural underpinnings that determine things like security, traceability and trust. But because standards like the W3C documents are technical, specialised and formal, we need the media to break them down into accessible language.

    I have no idea how much traction the W3C’s PROV standards have in real world usage, and can only guess how they might be applied, but unless people are aware of such possibilities (like the Do Not Track options their web browsers may offer), they are unlikely to demand them.

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