Sunday, September 23, 2018

I’ve Fixed Facebook. You’re Welcome.

An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg 

Dear Mark,

I’m not a social media expert, but I play one on the internet. This is why I’m able to give you the following advice that will solve all the problems of your company—advice which is, I assure you, at least as good as any of the advice you’re getting on the inside.

And don’t give me that “Problems? What problems?” bunk.

You’re not only being held responsible for genocide, and for the bulbous orange baby now occupying the White House, you’re also being blamed for all kinds of discrimination. The New York Times, writing about one such example, points out:
Facebook has been criticized in recent years over revelations that its technology allowed landlords to discriminate on the basis of race, and employers to discriminate on the basis of age. Now a group of job seekers is accusing Facebook of helping employers to exclude female candidates from recruiting campaigns. 
Yeah, you got problems, dude. Here are three steps to solve them:

1. Go back to being the geeks you truly are 

Mark, your company is a tech company. And why is it a tech company? Because you’re a geek, Mark. What’s more, you have all the earmarks of a lovable geek. You’ve got the benign awkwardness, a wife you met in college who is her own form of geek, and the cool tech you brought into the world. In fact, the only times you stop being lovable is when you try to be something more than just a geek.

I’ve been in Silicon Valley since before it even was Silicon Valley, and I can tell you, Mark, we love guys like you. We’ve got 80-year-olds running around this valley who are just like you, except they’re wearing pocket protectors. And we love them, just like we love you.

So why does everyone else hate you? Because you’ve forgotten that, first and foremost, you’re just a geek. You’re not a publisher, you’re not a social engineer, you’re not a diplomat, or a lawyer, or a judge, or even a neighborhood watch volunteer. And you’re sure as hell not a politician. (And thank heaven for that, am I right?) No, you’re none of those things. You know why? Yeah, you know, repeat after me: because you’re a geek.

So, all these solutions you’ve come up with—the citizenship requirement for political ads, the 10,000 people you’re going to hire to manually deal with all this crap, or that crazy war room you’re building to safeguard elections—are never going to work. Because a tech company peopled with geeks needs to come up with solutions that are 100% tech solutions. Anything that relies on human intervention of any kind just will not scale. Dude, you’ve got 2 billion users! That’s a haystack the size of which humanity has never seen before, and the needles you’re looking for are the tiniest, shiniest, and sharpest of all.

And, in fact, you know this, because near the close of your misguided September 12 blog post, you admitted the following:
“The last point I’ll make is that we’re all in this together. The definition of success is that we stop cyberattacks and coordinated information operations before they can cause harm. While I’d always rather Facebook identified abuse first, that won’t always be possible.” 
To which I’ll say, nah, man, don’t drag me or my tax dollars into your shit. Instead…

2. Leave the other crap to the people who are paid to do it 

I’ll just say you made a huge mistake, Mark, both on the day you decided to refer to yourself in court as a publisher, and over the period of time you began acting like one by taking responsibility for the content on your platform. The only way an enterprise of the size and scale of Facebook is going to survive in the long run is to completely divorce itself from the content shared on the platform. Again, it’s a simple matter of scale. (Remember, 2 billion users!)

As much as I abhor Alex Jones, the law and society at large, not Facebook, should have been tasked with doing something about his violent incitements and other abhorrent behavior. And as much as I despise Donald Trump and the Russians who used your platform to help get him elected, it’s the job of government and, again, society at large, not Facebook, to address that very serious national security threat. Instead, you’ve got a bunch of idiot pundits and Congress-monkeys pointing the finger at you guys every time some butt-head posts something offensive, polarizing, discriminatory, or even mildly unpleasant.

And now you’ve even got viral Facebook stars and even your own employees jumping all over your shit. It’s like an amoeba, dude! Every solution you try just squeezes between your fingers! I’ll put it this way: I’m sure Samidh Chakrabarti is a great guy, but what the hell are you doing with a Head of Civic Engagement in the first place? You’re a geek! Your company is a tech company! Get out of the moderation business, man! I’ll say it again: 2 billion users!

One more thing…

3. Quit being so goddamn greedy

All this madness probably started well before your IPO gave you an out-of-the-gate market cap of $104 billion (or, after the immediate drop because of the “fiasco,” about $50 billion), but it was certainly IPO day that put the whole thing on steroids. You were interviewed by Evan Osnos for his New Yorker piece fittingly titled, “Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before It Breaks Democracy,” but you were probably a little shocked when you read the final piece. Yes, Mark, Osnos did some incredibly thorough reporting and laid it all out for us. A “Growth Team,” Mark? Seriously? Fifty million users weren’t enough? I understand that your perfectly valid response to that could be, “Screw you, bub. We’re up to 2 billion.” To which I say, see above.

But seriously, all I’m saying is, maybe picture yourself with personal wealth in an amount slightly lower but every bit as obscene as $67 billion. Maybe $5 billion, or $7 billion. You can still live in your mansion, still own all the adjacent properties, still have a healthy philanthropic presence, still put your kids through the best schools. But you’ll be able to forget about your shithead shareholders. They’ll be turning on you soon enough anyway. Put that IPO squarely in the rearview mirror, let your user base dwindle down to a nicely sustainable 200 to 500 million, let some competition come in, and go out there and compete the way you and your fellow geeks like to compete: on cool tech, on features, on UX, on practical jokes, even—on anything, that is, but that cancerous, corrosive, congealing pathogen known as attention.

Because the thing is, Mark—and this is the last thing I’ll say, I promise—lovable geeks aren’t greedy, and they never have been. Those 80-year-olds with the pocket protectors, they’re sitting there stymied by the fact that their Cupertino ranch houses are now worth millions. They’re making digital movies of their grandkids’ kindergarten graduations and distributing them to their families—on DVDs.

One day, that could be you.

You’re welcome.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Language of the Times II

The Co-Opting of the term Faith

In a nation where religious affiliation is on the wane, now is a good time to look closely at the term faith. In politics, in particular, an increasingly desperate Republican party that has for years girded its loins with the mantle of superior “faith” is now completely losing whatever sense of prudence, decency, or ethics it might have had—if any. And as we watch these Republicans rightfully relinquish their grip on power, we realize that, at some point along the decades-long arc of their rise and fall, the term faith was co-opted. A perfectly useful term that had always been dependent on a definitive modifier (Christian faith, Muslim faith, Jewish faith, etc.) was seized by white male Republicans who branded themselves men of faith, without giving us the faintest idea what that actually meant. “We’re just better than those godless Democrats,” the phrase said. “Just shut up and follow us.” And of course, millions bought into the ruse and did just that, to disastrous effect.

This despite the fact that these supposed “men of faith” were not using the term faith to express their embrace of Christian teachings: of sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, of “thou shall not kill,” “thou shall not steal,” and “honor thy father and mother.” They were not using the term to be inclusive, they were using it to be exclusive—to declare themselves saviors, to apply the salve of justice onto the wounds of shame and fear their followers were suffering: the shame of incurable racism and xenophobia, and the fear of impending poverty slowly descending on their families and communities. And this has always been both the true crime and the genius of the Republican rise: these “men of faith” were never saviors, but were in fact, with their policies of austerity for the deserving poor and prosperity for the undeserving rich, the bringers of shame, and the bringers of poverty.

Which is why this co-opting of the term faith has been so insidious and so evil. It has not only manipulated the religious among us by making them feel special and exclusive, it has diminished the faith we are all at liberty to feel, each and every day, as participants in the American experiment. Because ours is a prosperous nation, founded on and governed by the rule of law, and given to fits of great compassion and ceaseless innovation. There are imperfections, certainly, as there are and will always be in any large human undertaking, but the vast majority of us, as citizens, can have faith, when we rise and go out into the world, in the people around us, in the safety of our streets, in the integrity of our customs and enterprises. Binding the term faith up in a religious context, and particularly, in a right-wing Republican conservative Christian context, in fact, binds all of us by denying us one of the best terms available for our national identify: our relationship to our communities, our system of government, and the public servants we all trust and rely on each and every day. Because, in America, the faith we have in our teachers, first responders, school boards, town and city councils, trash collectors, road workers, postal carriers, and cops on the beat, and, most importantly, the faith we have in each other, is much more important to our social fabric than faith in any unseen deity in the sky.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Greed’s New Playing Field

On Facebook, Russian Meddling, and the Corrupting Power of Profit 

In the wake of the massive social media meddling and manipulation that impacted the 2016 U.S. presidential election, all fingers are now pointing at Facebook, and for good reason. It was a year and a half ago that U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Russians had used Facebook and Twitter to meddle in the election. Executives from the tech companies went to Congress to express contrition while assuming no accountability, which was fine until we learned that Cambridge Analytica—whose founder, Robert Mercer, a reportedly brilliant computer scientist and staunch far-right-wing Republican, is the closest thing we have to a real-life Dr. Evil—had obtained and used data on 50 million Facebook users in its own nefarious election influence campaign. Eventually, Facebook’s chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, resigned in disgrace, and now we face the horrifying possibility that Mark Zuckerberg himself, the last person anyone wants to see sitting before a Congressional committee, might indeed subject himself to such a grilling.

So, the world wrings its collective hands over the power and influence of social media platforms, but the fact is, we’ve known for decades that something like this would happen.

Long before the emergence of the worldwide web 25 years ago, researchers identified two key characteristics of what we then called computer-mediated communication—essentially, large-scale communication over devices like computers and smartphones—which were that this type of communication is asynchronous and anonymous. Together, these attributes result in human interplay that is radically different from the face-to-face conversations and phone calls that were the pre-internet norm. Freed from quizzical or stunned expressions, harrumphing or sighs over the phone line, or out-and-out verbal interruptions, and, in fact, freed from ever coming into contact or interacting again with one’s antagonist, participants in social media from the very beginning jettisoned basic tenets of human self-regulation: status, diplomacy, empathy, compassion.

In short, much of social media quickly became anti-social, and the flame wars of 1980s-era Usenet evolved into the bots, imposters, and trolls of modern Facebook.

That’s the temperament story, which explains the human capacity for nefarious deeds on social media. What it doesn’t explain is how social media attained the global reach that allowed it to change the course of a national election in the world’s largest and most well-established democracy. For that, you have to follow the money.

Mark Zuckerberg
In the early days of Facebook, there was reportedly a split between founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Severin on the subject of advertising. Severin, who had provided the initial seed money for the site, was in favor of selling ads from the get-go, while Zuckerberg clung to the idea of an online destination free of the stain of conspicuous profit-making. Severin created a media kit that he floated around potential customers and investors in New York while Zuckerberg managed his small team of nerds in Palo Alto. Lots of intrigue, conflict, and resolution later, Facebook now openly promotes its unique ability to deliver targeted ads, and an entire industry has arisen, largely supplanting the newspaper, magazine, and television advertising of the past, and now a company that had revenues of $78 million in 2010 has grown to over $40 billion in revenues today. All that money comes from owning the attention of 2 billion users globally, and all that attention leads to lots of new tech to gain even more attention, and with it, more revenue.

Internet Research Agency Headquarters
So, while nefarious behavior was always a built-in feature (or bug) of the social media paradigm, the scale and global reach of Facebook, and the temptation that gave to devious, creative, and well-organized perpetrators like the Russian Internet Research Agency, all flowed forth from an impulse that is all too American: that of unbridled greed.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Co-opting and Controlling

The Emotional Violence of the Words We Use 

In last week’s New Yorker Comment, Louis Menand decries the Word of the Year choices by various dictionary publishers. (Decries. Now there’s a word. Have you ever heard anyone speak that word out loud? What’s the word for “written-text-only words”? Anyway, if I ever heard anyone speak decries out loud, not only would I disagree with the sentence, that person would not be my friend. But I digress…)

Louis Menand’s point is not only that words like youthquake, feminism, and populism are lame choices for Word of the Year, but that 2017, an abysmal year for the English language, just wasn’t a year for choosing a Word of the Year. As Menand explains,
In national politics, you no longer need evidence or reason. You no longer need to make an argument. You need only to assert. If your assertion is questioned, you need only to repeat it. 
I’m optimistic enough to believe—for now, anyway—that this may be true, but not a truism (if that makes any sense); the Trump-monkeys will tire and return to their couches (there are, after all, Kardashians to keep up with), and the latest wave of American willful ignorance will recede. But it is instructive, I think, to explore some of the emotional violence, both direct and insidious, that we do to each other with the words we use. I experience this violence constantly these days, as I expect many of you do, too.

Fake News 

Menand actually touches on this term in his comment, saying “’Fake’ and ‘hoax’ are the ‘abracadabra’s of the Trump world, words recited to make inconvenient facts disappear.” Others have pointed this out, of course, but very few mention the modern origin of the term, fake news. It was Jon Stewart, of all people, who popularized the term to describe his own TV program, “The Daily Show.” Fifteen years ago, researchers discovered that millions of people, particularly young people, were getting their daily dose of news from “The Daily Show.” This prompted supposedly real-news pundits like Tucker Carlson, then on CNN, to criticize the quality and objectivity of “Daily Show” interviews and field pieces, which left Stewart understandably incensed. (He’s a comedian, after all.) He countered, most memorably in a 2004 appearance with Carlson and Paul Begala on CNN’s “Crossfire,” “We’re fake news! The lead-in to my show is puppets making crank phone calls!” And now, of course, we can only long for the innocent days when fake news referred to intentionally comedic reporting that somehow managed to deliver more truth than all the CNNs, MSNBCs, and Fox News’s on the planet. Donald Trump and his soiled minions have now co-opted a perfectly good term that encapsulated a perfectly good element of a perfectly good and pleasant era in American popular culture, and they’ve turned it into an infantile trigger warning to their willfully ignorant base—people who do not give and have never given a hoot about the actual “news” (not too many copies of the New York Times or even the Wall Street Journal flying off the racks in Podunk, Oklahoma these days), but are downright Pavlovian when it comes to juice-flowing responses to their Idiot-in-Chief, or anyone else who professes hatred of Obama, hatred of Liberals, and hatred of big government. The statement “You’re fake news” has zero credibility. The statement “We’re fake news” is overflowing with it.

Gold Star Families 

Okay, this one, strangely, does not inflict emotional violence, but is intended to capture the emotional violence of losing a family member in war. But my comment/question on this one is, has there ever been a more reductive popular term devised? “I’m here to inform you that your child/spouse/parent/sibling has been killed in the war. Here’s your gold star. Hope you feel better.”

A little Googling tells me the term dates back to World War I, when it became customary for families of deployed servicemembers to post a blue star in their front windows while their family members were overseas. These were replaced with gold stars if the family member was killed, and it is believed that Woodrow Wilson coined the term Gold Star Mother. The blue/gold star practice fell out favor during the Vietnam era, but was restored when an all-volunteer army began fighting the perpetual wars of today. And of course, the term Gold Star Family popped up everywhere in 2016 thanks to the Idiot-in-Chief’s prototypically kneejerk reaction to the Democratic Convention speech by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed by a suicide bomb in Iraq in 2004. It’s no surprise that a family’s loss became a political football, particularly in the corrosive era we find ourselves in now, and the term Gold Star Family certainly came in handy as everyone from the VFW to John McCain were condemning the Drumpführer for his inane and insensitive tirade. But how about, instead of handing out gold stars, we make the investments truly needed to provide for the health and welfare of both veterans and active servicemembers and their families? How about we finance war out of the military budget instead of supplemental spending bills? How about we share the burden of perpetual war more broadly, instead of leaving it to the 1% of us with the courage and fortitude to actually step up and serve? Orwellian symbols that do little more than distract us aren't helping our bravest citizens recover and resume their lives. Real action and investments can.