Facebook as a Dead Whale Carcass

Over in Garbage Day, Ryan doubles down on his metaphor of Facebook being a dead whale carcass, and it’s great:

The fact that this report dropped the same week as the newest missive from Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs for Meta, which outlines the company’s roadmap for building the metaverse, feels important. Facebook, as a product, is over. Meta knows it. Facebook’s creators know it. Possibly even Facebook’s users. But no one has anywhere else to really go. Meta seems to want to migrate their users from Facebook to Horizon, their metaverse platform, because that would feel like a win, an upgrade. But we’re still years, if not decades out, from the immersive VR-powered internet they’re dreaming of, if it’s even possible to gain mass adoption at all. For instance, do we really expect older users to wear a VR headset to follow online updates from their grandkids or read the news?

And so, we’re left with the whale carcass. It’s full of scams and misinformation and weirdly sexual and violent viral videos, but for many users in the US, it’s the only place to go. Facebook wanted to eat the whole internet. It almost succeeded. And now we all, including Facebook itself, have to sit here and wait for it to fully and completely rot away until we can build something new and, hopefully, better.

Ryan Broderick

It’s pretty illuminating to see reports and data about what is actually the most viewed on the hulking behemoth that is Facebook. Illuminating, and disappointing. Algorithm-driven consumption feels increasingly like a race to the bottom, as inevitably it’s gamed and abused to cater to baser and baser instincts. I’d say two of our biggest failures with the internet in the last dozen years are: 1) not curbing monopolistic platforms early; 2) not curtailing algorithmic consumption early on.

WordPress, Tumblr, and the Web

Over at The Verge, Nilay Patel has a good interview with Matt Mullenweg called How WordPress and Tumblr are Keeping the Internet Weird. (Matt is the CEO of Automattic, which owns WordPress and recently acquired Tumblr.) The interview covers a lot of ground, but there were a few highlights for me. For instance, I thought this was a good take on the state of open source and the tragedy of the commons:

Tragedy of the commons is from economics actually. It’s a story. There’s a common field that belongs to this town, but it doesn’t belong to any one person. If all the farmers brought their sheep and cattle to graze in that field, but none of them were investing in maintaining it — maybe not having their particular sheep or cattle lay off it so things can regrow. The field gets overgrazed and dies. No more grass. Everyone loses.

In open-source, it’s very easy for companies to use open-source without contributing anything back, but that’s kind of one of the features of it. We can’t complain about it really, because that is what the license says you can and should do. But I think that companies who think more long-term say, “Okay, I’m getting a ton of value for this. I’m not paying a penny. How do I make sure that this is around five or 10 years from now?” We’ve seen examples of libraries that the whole internet depends on.

Matt Mullenweg

Also, I really love the idea of this open, transparent approach to decision making and discussion for a company:

What’s interesting at Automattic is there’s no internal email. I get a handful of emails a year from my colleagues. Everything happens on these internal blogs. What that means is we have essentially an organizational blockchain where every single decision going back to 2007 is on one of these internal blogs. You can find how every piece of code works, or every business decision, or every logo. Everything is in there somewhere.

Even if you and I decided something in a meeting, we need to write it up afterwards. It’s on this P2, so people can participate in it asynchronously. Future generations or future versions of ourselves who’ve forgotten why we made a decision can tell why we did that.

Finally, we try to say, “Reversible decisions quickly, and irreversible decisions deliberately, or slowly.” We put pretty much every decision into two categories. Most — 99% of what you do — is very reversible. Some things are really big. Who you take funding from, acquisitions — these things are hard to unwind, so you need to make those decisions very deliberately.

Matt Mullenweg

I don’t think it’d be the right choice for every company, because frankly not everyone is wired that way, but if you can cultivate that sort of culture, it’s really appealing to me.

It was also interesting to get some insights into his plan for Tumblr, which gives me a bit of hope:

It used to be every post we did on Tumblr, people would say, “Oh, you launched this new feature. Why haven’t you gone rid of the porn bots and Nazis?” So we had to do that. There were porn bots and bad people publishing on Tumblr, and we’ve done our best and still today are doing our best, to keep it a healthy, positive place on the web. If I have to say what I would love for Tumblr to be — besides just an alternative, another place you can go that’s different from the other social networks — is a place for art and artists.

Art is necessary for society. It feeds the soul. It’s naturally transgressive. Art pushes boundaries. We need to evolve how Tumblr moderation works to encompass that. It needs to be the best place on the web for art and artists — a place where they can have a direct relationship to their audience and people can follow things, not an algorithm that’s trying to enrage you.

And then further down, this continues:

If we can create a third place on the internet that doesn’t have an advertising model — you might have seen that we just launched an ad-free upgrade for Tumblr. Twitter and Facebook never do that because their business models don’t allow them to. But, luckily, since Tumblr isn’t making very much money right now, we can afford to do that and make it the model. I think that’s pretty cool. We have a really decent chance to bootstrap a non-surveillance-capitalism-based social network, which I think is impossible for the incumbents right now. They just have the golden handcuffs.

Definitely some food for thought.

Social Media is Ruining Us

Over at the Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt has a piece on Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. I don’t completely agree with his premise and feel like some of the examples are a bit of a reach, but the central premise – namely, that social media (and especially algorithmic social media) is rapidly eroding the social fabric and making us collectively dumber – feels pretty spot on, with some citations from research on the matter to back it up.

But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. As I wrote in a 2019 Atlantic article with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, they became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will.

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.

Further:

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.

And let’s not forget what current trends in AI end up allowing:

Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods—whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos—will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)

It’s a bit of a long read, and it’s okay if you don’t 100% agree with his points, but there’s a lot there worth considering. He does end the piece somewhat hopeful, by offering some suggestions on things that could be done to help the situation. I’m a bit less optimistic that we’ll be able to implement any of those reforms, and unfortunately have no other ideas of ways to come back from our current state.

The Tchotchke Internet

The Tchotchke Internet is a social media landscape of digital flair and knick-knacks, a direct evolution of the freemium user experience. It’s the small ways that users can spend money (or make money) to have a better experience on social media. It’s Reddit Gold, Discord Nitro, Twitter Super Follows, celebrity verified checkmarks, premium Zoom calls, NFT galleries, Ethereum domain names in your bio, Fortnite skins, Roblox Robux, personal Minecraft servers, custom Twitch emotes, Linktree URLs, cryptocoin giveaways, Clubhouse invites, and social media partner programs.

People are spending a lot of money to express themselves online and most of what they’re paying for is basically the digital equivalent of an emo kid’s backpack covered in Hot Topic pins, random little digital artifacts that bely some kind of personal identity.

Ryan Broderick

It’s a clever, and I think apt, name for how the internet has shifted recently, and continues a trend we’ve been seeing for a while around virality, monetization, and content creation. We’ve been talking about “influencer culture” for a while, and I think this is a (perhaps inevitable) continuation of that trend. I think that the “digital flair” is definitely an attempt at status signaling, but also an attempt for some to feel like they can still express themselves and be part of the larger dialogue. As the nature of discourse on the internet increasingly feels like broadcasts (one-to-many, and largely in one direction), having little ways to make your mark feel increasingly important.

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The Outrage Machine

Over at Garbage Day, Ryan Broderick discusses A Unified Theory of Online Anger, noting how algorithmic social media has effectively been weaponized (notably by the right, but let’s be honest, not just by them). They’re not wrong.

As these trending main characters go viral on Twitter, hundreds of online outlets race to turn this into content. And there’s a real financial incentive for covering these stories. As most people working at various content mines can tell you, the thing Facebook readers love the most is getting mad about stuff that’s happening on Twitter.

Ryan Broderick
Continue reading “The Outrage Machine”

Media Layoffs Galore

My heart goes out to the journalists at the multiple organizations laid off this week (and more). Something like a thousand laid off in the space of a week. Fast Company has a solid (and scathing) article about the recent Buzzfeed layoffs: BuzzFeed’s layoffs and the false promise of “unions aren’t for us”. It paints a pretty bleak picture of where things are at, why, and what we can expect more of in the future.

But as an outlet largely dependent on social platforms like Facebook, BuzzFeed was forced to follow platform trends. When Facebook announced it was focusing on video content, BuzzFeed turned its resources just to that. Brands like Tasty were born, which force-fed ubiquitous birds’-eye view videos of generally unappetizing food to the masses. And for a while, this seemed to work. Videos were performing well, thanks to Facebook’s algorithmic push, and BuzzFeed once again looked like a digital trailblazer. But this bet was predicated on the whim of a social network known for pendulum strategy shifts at the expense of its clients; this pivot didn’t take into account what would happen if Facebook changed course. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Facebook did precisely that.

More Social Media Diets

I mentioned John Green’s decision to take a year off (most) social media before. Well, he’s posted an update, a month in, and I think he sums up my own feelings pretty well:

In a similar vein, I also recently bumped into this video by the folks at Veritasium, and I think also touches on some really valid views of what’s so bad about social media as it stands:

Not going to bother adding a lot of meta-commentary, here. I think they make their points well enough on their own.

Hurdles to a New Social Web

My last post was discussing the state of social media (and frankly, the internet), and a possible future. I feel like I can say relatively objectively that things are pretty broken as they currently stand, in an actively harming society sort of way. But when you’re entrenched, it can be incredibly difficult to see a way out, even if you know you need to. I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of the hurdles to moving on from this mess. (Fair warning, this is a little long.)

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The New Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the internet will look like in the future. Right now, it’s dominated by social media in one form or another, with large, megacorp silos acting as our primary sources of information and discourse. This is a shift from the “DIY” homegrown state of the early internet — while there were absolutely megacorps that cornered entire niches of the internet (think about the likes of AOL, for instance), it didn’t feel like quite as much of a stranglehold. There was lots of room for growth and plucky startups and homegrown projects. A proliferation of open source projects to run your own websites in all sorts of wacky configurations (lots of weird mishmashes of CMSes, blog software, forums, galleries, with some shaky handcrafted glue between them all). Lots of platforms, lots of different standards and protocols popping up all the time, and nothing really talking to each other all that well. Early attempts at cohesion had mixed success (OAuth, yay! RSS, woo! Trackbacks… um).

Given that sort of morass, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of these homegrown solutions gave way to professionally run central services. Tired of fiddling with your tumble log? Go sign up for Tumblr. Microblogging micromanagement got you down? Check out this Twitter thing. Sick of managing 500 logins to different forums? Roll on over to Reddit. Gallery software galling you? Find your way to Flickr! They handle the backend, you provide the content, and your audience grows as their userbase does! Sounds great, right?

Continue reading “The New Social Media”

John Taking a Year Off

How various social internet sites occupy our brains has been a recurring topic on here, and I think he summarizes it all pretty well. These sites are working as intended, but I don’t like that intention, and I don’t like how they work for me, personally.

My own experiences with taking time off have had limited success. I still find myself on Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram (or… or… or…) more than I would like, though I’m interacting with it less and have less expectation of interaction on them (which I think is still a net win, but not as much as I’d like). I’m not sure I’m at the point of going cold-turkey (and what shape that would take — where do I want to spend my time?) like John, but it definitely continues to be on my mind.